The Coen brothers return to Hollywood and reunite with George Clooney and Josh Brolin with Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar!, the final film in the brothers' 'numbskull trilogy' is a romanticised version of Hollywood in the 1950s, says Joel Cohen.

From left, filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen are joined by Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix and George Clooney as Baird Whitlock on the set of Hail​, Caesar!. Alison Rosa / Universal Pictures
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The Coen brothers have returned to Hollywood. Or, rather, their latest film, the whip-smart ensemble comedy Hail Caesar!, has brought them back there.

Set a decade after their 1990 Cannes-winning classic Barton Fink, in which John Turturro's playwright arrived in Tinseltown determined to make a difference, Hail, Caesar! is set at the same fictional movie studio, Capitol ­Pictures.

“The movie is, by design, a rather romanticised version of Hollywood in the 1950s,” says Joel Coen, who – as he has done with all 17 Coen Brothers films – co-wrote, co-produced and co-directed with his younger brother Ethan.

Much lighter in tone than Barton Fink, Hail, Caesar! deftly depicts the goings-on at the studio, in particular the kidnap of not-so-bright movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) by a group of Communist sympathisers from the backlot while shooting a Roman epic, also called Hail, Caesar!

The film-within-the-film was inspired to some degree by the Coens’ childhood viewing habits while growing up in 1960s ­Minnesota.

“We were brought up on some of the worst movies in Hollywood, some of which were ‘sandal’ movies, Biblical epics, that kind of thing,” says Ethan.

Nevertheless, these formative films, bad or not, had a profound effect on the brothers. “What you see when you were a kid is the deepest in your head,” says Ethan.

Clooney was first pitched the idea for the film years ago, after working with the brothers on O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty. It was to be the completion of their "numbskull trilogy", with Clooney playing an idiot in all three.

Hail, Caesar! languished, however, as the brothers were distracted by other projects, including a reunion with Clooney in 2008's Burn After Reading – in which he played another moron.

"Each time they send me a script, they say: 'You're going to play a knucklehead,' and I'm always willing to do it," says Clooney. "I remember when they sent me Burn After Reading and they said: 'We wrote this part with you in mind' – and it was this jackass.

“And now they have [me as] a willing imbecile who falls in with a bunch of writers who are ­Communists.”

Joel merely shrugs when asked why Clooney is always their go-to fool.

“He’s very funny and he’s the guy that’s always game to do it for us,” he says.

Tasked with keeping everything running smoothly at Capitol Pictures is studio head Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who not only has Whitlock’s disappearance to deal with but numerous pictures shooting simultaneously, each with their own temperamental actors and directors.

This is Brolin's third film with the Coens, after the Oscar-­winning No Country For Old Men and Western remake True Grit.

“I’m the through-line,” says Brolin of his character, “going around pacifying, or hiding – covering up – the debauched acts of all the adolescent actors, and pacifying the gossip writers of the time.”

Indeed, one of the many pleasures of the film are the scenes of Eddie marching from set to set, where the films being made include an aquatic movie starring Scarlett Johansson’s Esther ­Williams-like diva, to a sailor-­musical led by Channing Tatum’s tap-dancer. Tatum trained for weeks for an impressive six-­minute song-and-dance routine.

“I’d never put on a pair of tap shoes until this film,” says the actor, who credits the Coens for giving him the courage to do it. “I don’t think I would ever have chosen to jump off a cliff blindly with anybody else but them.”

Also on board is Tilda Swinton, playing twin gossip writers, Thora and Thessaly Thacker (inspired by real-life columnist Hedda Hopper).

Alden Ehrenreich arguably delivers the standout performance as lasso-flinging, gun-twirling cowboy star Hobie Doyle.

“He’s sort of invoking Roy Rogers, Gene Autry ... they were the kings of that genre,” says Ehrenreich. “I think the Coens really created their own particular guy. It’s really out of their ­imagination.”

This is typical of the Coens, who frequently create hybrid characters that hover somewhere between reality and fiction. In the case of Brolin’s character, he’s a blend of the real-life Mannix, who was a studio head and “fixer”, and old-school moguls such as Irving Thalberg and Louis B Mayer. Tatum’s Burt is also an amalgam.

“It’s a little Gene Kelly, but the make-up and hair is like Guy Maddison,” says Joel. “It’s a mishmash – you’re making something up and pulling elements from different places.”

The big difference between the movies within the movie and the sets of the Coen brothers’ own films is a lack of any unnecessary drama. On their shoots, there are no egos, says Brolin.

“It’s so professional, so familial,” he says. “I remember Sean Penn talking about making ­Super 8 films with Rob Lowe and Emilio Estevez. That’s how it feels.”

No wonder actors keep queuing up to work with them.

“I would play a teacup in the background of one of their scenes,” says Ehrenreich. He’d probably have to get in line.

Hail, Caesar! is in cinemas now