Film Review: Hail, Caesar!

The Coen Brothers’ eccentric lampoon of the Hollywood studio system is uneven, but buoyed by some bright set-pieces and the lead performance of Josh Brolin as a fabled fixer.
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Though they’ve spanned many genres over the course of their three-decade-plus career, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have always had a spiky affection for classic Hollywood. It’s there in the heightened gangster lingo of Miller’s Crossing, in the speedy patter of The Hudsucker Proxy, and even in the hellish struggles of the titular ’40s playwright-turned-screenwriter in Barton Fink. With Hail, Caesar! they’ve gone all-out, showing us the inside workings of a fictional movie studio in 1951, with a zany cast of characters bearing striking similarities to real-life icons of the cinema world. For the Coens, it’s a lark, a chance to replicate the look and feel and follies of a bygone era of factory filmmaking. Hail, Caesar! could have been a lark for the audience too, if only it were as light on its feet as some of the confections it sends up.

Instead, their film is an uneven, sometimes delightful, other times ponderous potpourri of set-pieces that allow the brothers the chance to in one film tackle the musical, the western, the biblical epic and the comedy of manners, alternating with a main plot mischievously upending the Commie paranoia of the era.

The rock at the center of all this craziness is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of physical production at Capitol Pictures, very loosely based on the former bouncer of the same name who eventually rose to vice president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The real-life Mannix was known for his talents as a “fixer,” someone who could erase scandals involving the studio’s big stars and otherwise solve various crises. Over the brief time frame of the film, the Coens’ Mannix must vet the studio’s new biblical spectacle Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ with a quartet of religious leaders, deal with the inconvenient pregnancy of Esther Williams-style swimming star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), placate rival identical-twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), and calm director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) when he’s saddled with drawling cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) as the lead of his drawing-room comedy Merrily We Dance. But Mannix’s most urgent problem is the disappearance midway through the production day of Hail Caesar! headliner Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), whom he later discovers is being held for ransom by a group that calls itself “The Future.” (The big reveal later on, almost a rebuke to Trumbo, is that Communists really have infiltrated Hollywood and set an aggressive agenda.)

Like a remote control from the future, Hail, Caesar! channel-surfs from vignette to vignette, though it sometimes stops too long at one station (that low-energy kidnapping plot being the prime offender). But there are some disarming stops along the way: Johannson’s uncanny replica of a Busby Berkeley-directed aquatic ballet, Fiennes’ hilarious dialogue coaching of his hayseed leading man, and most especially Channing Tatum’s evocation of one of those athletic Gene Kelly sailor production numbers. Frances McDormand (Mrs. Joel Coen) has a priceless scene as C.C. Calhoun, a nimble editor based on the legendary Margaret Booth. And Tilda Swinton is great fun as those high-strung, high-maintenance twin columnists.

The true ballast of the film is Josh Brolin, star of the Coens’ No Country for Old Men, who has evolved into an extremely watchable character actor. His Mannix is like a figure out of film noir: tough, unflappable but quietly haunted, and probably much more virtuous than his real-life counterpart (if no more devoted to his studio). Second lead Clooney continues his Coen tradition of playing a dimwit (here stuck in a toga for the entire film), but gets to shine in his final on-camera monologue. And relative newcomer Ehrenreich is very engaging as the earnest western star just trying his darnedest to please his bosses.

With its ensemble of capable and fun performers, handsome 35mm photography by longtime Coen DP Roger Deakins, and inspired, nostalgic set design by Jess Gonchor, Hail, Caesar! has just enough entertainment value to merit a guarded recommendation. But with its uncertain pacing and quirky detours, it likely won’t be hailed as one of the Coens’ best.

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