On the surface there is something curiously thin about the Coen Bros. new venture Hail, Caesar! It’s so fluffy and aloof at times it can feel lazy. But that’s not the Coen’s we know. Beneath the surface they are always searching for deeper themes, even under the guise of the 50’s Hollywood studio system. Here that’s happening everywhere and while it’s not always successful it’s an absolute blast to be in their company.
And for the Coen’s that is hard not to admire. Their ambitions have always taken them in new directions, never dipping into the same well twice. In the last 10 years they have tackled a folk musical (Inside Llewyn Davis,) a western (True Grit,) an existential breakdown (A Serious Man,) and a broad farce (Burn After Reading.) Sure they all offer something familiar but that commitment to trying something different always keeps them fresh.
Josh Brolin is Eddie Mannix, the Head of Physical Production for Capital Studios – a bustling Hollywood construct with endless soundstages. Mannix has the fancy title but his real job is a fixer. He traverses his day looking at dailies from an upcoming western to helping a young starlet find a suitable man to marry. Anything in the studios purview that could affect the machine, Mannix is on it. He answers only to two – his lord Jesus Christ and the head of Capital Studios, Mr. Skank. Other than that, Mannix has carte blanche to keep the ship afloat.
His main concern at the moment is Capital’s massive investment in the production of Hail, Caesar! Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is the studios biggest movie star and he plays a Roman General who meets and is transformed by his interaction with Jesus Christ. The film is stuffed with costumes and lavish sets, it’s an award bait film of the highest order. At one point Mannix meets with 3 priests and a rabbi to ensure that the movie’s religious tones are up to snuff. It’s a hysterical exchange as the priests opine about their savior while the rabbi does his best not to roll his eyes.
The production hits a snag when Whitlock is captured by some undercover communists posing as extras in one of the Coen’s many odes to the realities of 50’s cinema. The communists want Whitlock – complete buffoon – to join their cause because a celebrity face is better than no face. In their lavish Malibu lair they discuss the nature of the capitalist agenda over finger sandwiches and whiskey.
Does this sound profoundly silly? Well, it is and while this kidnapping stands as the films central mystery it gives the Coen’s an extensive palate to play with. Around the studio lot Mannix comes across Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich,) a hillbilly with a penchant for singing on horseback. Doyle is a star in his niche but Mannix needs him to in a staunch, uppity comedy by Director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes.) It’s a hunch that Doyle can make the leap into legitimate pictures and a hilarious exchange as Laurentz attempts to direct his first scene.
Scarlett Johansson appears as the silver screen beauty DeeAnna Moran who, after two divorces is in desperate need of a stable relationship – if only for PR purposes. Tilda Swinton plays Thora and Thessaly Thacker – identical twin reporters’ hell bent on exclusives and each others destruction. Channing Tatum is Burt Gurney – a Gene Kelly type whose song and dance number with a boat load of other sailors steals the show. Heck, even Francis McDormand makes an appearance as Editor C.C. Calhoun in a hilarious exchange while walking Mannix through some dailies.
Hail, Caesar! might be considered “lesser Coen Bros.” by some but that to me is a slight to their career. It may not reach the gonzo brilliance of The Big Lebowski or the existential dread of No Country For Old Men but it does something equally difficult in such a broad comedy – it makes you laugh while pondering the nature of the industry we all love. Often we revere the Hollywood of the past, only to have the Coen Bros. present it to you in all its buffoonish, Technicolor glory – and it casts an awfully prescient view of the future.