With Hail, Caesar!, Joel and Ethan Coen skewer and celebrate old Hollywood in equal turns, delivering a screwball movies-in-a-movie picture that satisfies in every particular. Are you interested in classic Hollywood films and golden age studio gossip? Do you love sailor musicals, Esther Williams mermaid movies, biblical epics, dusty old Westerns or elegant drawing room dramas? Enjoy the idea of a perfectly Coen caper foisted by Communists? Hail, Caesar! has you covered.
The Coens often tie their riotous what-if scenarios together with only the thinnest thread of story, and Hail, Caesar! may be tethered by the thinnest yet, but the narrative lightness leaves the film swift and easy, as nimble as Channing Tatum’s tapping shoes. There is a plot somewhere in here, but its specifics are best viewed as a vehicle for farce.
Josh Brolin plays, with admirable gravity, legendary MGM executive and fixer Eddie Mannix, here a fictionalized version who works at “Capitol Pictures Studio.” Mannix is being wooed by an aviation company, a job that would require a far less exacting application of his celebrated problem-solving skills. A day in his position as studio smooth-outer has him attempting to mend the following: the pregnancy of unwed synchronized swimming starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), the unwise but studio-mandated casting of dreamy-eyed cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in the prestige parlor picture directed by an irate Ralph Fiennes, the impending scandal about studio golden boy Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) threatened by twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton in Hedda Hopper finery), and the Communist kidnapping of Whitlock in the middle of his filming the Roman epic of the title. Mannix works it all in between his once-daily confession and his unhappy attempts to quit smoking for a wife he rarely sees (Alison Pill).
His diagnostic visits across the studio give us glimpses into several different productions, both in-story and behind the scenes. This gives the Coens, and cinematographer Roger Deakins, the opportunity to play with lighting and visual atmosphere, delivering plausible – and knockout gorgeous – versions of standard Hollywood classics: the western, the comedy of manners, the musical. They all look beautiful, and allow the actors within to play. Clooney is as goofy and artless as he’s ever been; Johansson is fast-talking and cantankerous; Tatum is unsurprisingly marvelous in the film’s big dance number. In a cast this packed with talent, it should be difficult to cherry-pick the standout, but the young and least-known Ehrenreich runs away with the film, playing Hobie with appealing and often hilarious earnestness. His only competitor is Frances McDormand, whose one scene as a perilously focused editor, likely inspired by Blanche Sewell, could have lasted the entire movie or the rest of my life and I’d never grow tired of it. The same goes for a scene in which Fiennes’ character attempts to guide Hobie in a line reading of “Would that it were so simple,” with both men repeating the phrase until it loses all possible meaning.
As light and agile as Hail, Caesar! feels, there is some weight here. Capitol Pictures gauges the possible controversy in its portrayal of Jesus – an Akron, Ohio, citizen found after a nation-wide talent search – by eliciting the advice of a committee of holy men, and the kidnapping Commies are made up of screenwriters outraged that they never saw a cent of the profits on their films. The Coens are criticizing the studio system, but they’re also embracing its output. In a movie that demonstrates so much blind following of a belief system – whether that’s Whitlock’s character changing his entire life after one glimpse of Jesus (currently represented by a title card reading “Divine Presence to be shot”), or Whitlock himself cheerfully buying into Communism during his own abduction, or Mannix going to confession so often his own priest suggests he slow it down – Hail, Caesar! isn’t afraid to say that the only true religion is art, and what we get out of it.
Mannix’s job isn’t easy, and he could make a lot more money doing a lot less work, but he believes in what he’s doing. He’ll babysit, slap around, mop up and miss dinner with his family every night if he has to, because it’s all in service of the picture. The Coens think that’s a dogma worth buying into, and when the picture is as fun as Hail, Caesar!, it’s hard to argue with them.