If Douglas Sirk had directed a film noir written by Billy Wilder, it might have looked something like HAIL, CAESAR!, the latest thoughtful tangle of philosophy and whimsy from the Coen Brothers. Taking place in a 1951 Hollywood not entirely unlike the one that actually existed, it mixes Cold War paranoia, carefully managed studio PR that neatly separates reality from the dreams that the public demand, and unexpected calls from both the future and The Future. All in the space of 27 hours.
The Coens present us with a rich panoply of studio life as seen through the eyes of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the Head of Physical Production for Capitol Pictures. He moves with the sleek agility and assured power of a barracuda coupled with a playbook that could have been penned by Machiavelli himself. He needs all of that as he cooly dashes hither and yon, fixing the problems inherent in an industry that caters to non-conformists and eccentrics. An unplanned out-of-wedlock pregnancy, a miscast leading man, a pair of twin gossip columnists at each other’s throats to grab the juiciest morsel of scandal and serve it up on a silver platter to the public, these are all in a day’s work for Mannix, and a night’s for that matter.
Trouble never sleeps, and neither does Mannix. Negotiating a panel of clerics into giving their collective ecclesiastical blessing to Capitol’s latest prestige project, a tale of the Christ that is the eponymous HAIL, CAESAR! is nothing compared to gracefully managing the fallout when its star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney resuming his quondam Caesar coif) is kidnapped from the back lot just before filming the final, climactic crucifixion sequence. With millions on the line in cost overruns, Mannix coolly follows the clues, amasses the ransom money, and still manages to have a late dinner that his wife (Allison Pill) has re-heated for him. In fact, there are only two things that deeply trouble Mannix: lying to his wife about quitting cigarettes, and that job offer from Lockheed that will give him regular hours to spend with his beloved family, and a lifetime of security in an industry that isn’t being threatened by television. That last would be the future that is calling Mannix. As for The Future, that is the group that has nabbed Whitlock, and wants $100,000 for his return. Mannix being a fixer par excellence, the money is no problem. The alternate view of economics by which Whitlock is seduced during his captivity, that’s another matter altogether.
Eddie Mannix is the name of an actual studio functionary from those halcyon days, even if the Mannix here and there are and were two different quantities, but the rest of the star-studded cast are clever simulacrums and composites with credible but fake names. Casting such a range of star power is equally clever. Scarlett Johansson as the gassy mermaid who proves her talents as a thespian by projecting innocence in her aquatic extravaganzas while being far more earthy in real life ; Ralph Fiennes as the fey director with a refined but short fuse when tasked with turning a cowboy star (Alden Ehrenreich) into a dinner-jacketed sophisticate, Tilda Swinton as the twin gossip mongers who sport visually aggressive hats while roaming Hollywood with the instincts of a crazed ferret; Channing Tatum, as in MAGIC MIKE XXL, once again channeling Gene Kelley in a production number worthy of that master; Jonah Hill as the most reliable man in Hollywood, and, of course, Clooney, a charismatic movie star playing a charismatic movie star who is the unwitting butt of the joke that is his own pomposity. As if that weren’t enough, there’s Wayne Knight as an extra with a cause, and Frances McDormand as a film editor whose few minutes on screen are madness of a most divine variety.
There is not a dull moment in this droll concoction that is screamingly funny without ever raising its voice. The pace is frenetic, but the tone is as stoic as Mannix himself, and the satire as sharp as his wits. The story is both silly and serious, with Eherenreich dazzling as a kid who can do handstands on a moving horse, who can whip a strand of spaghetti into a working lasso, but who can’t speak in front of a camera despite being a star. The workaround discovered for that speaks to the mother of necessity as it does to the art of filmmaking.
HAIL, CAESAR! begins and ends with Mannix in a confessional, which is fitting for a film that exposes the backstory to the glamour and fibbing that is the business of the Dream Factory. The Coen Brothers don’t stop with the easy jabs at an industry that is far too fond of itself. There is a hefty dose of politics fueling the antics – it can’t be happenstance that the studio is named Capitol — as well as a dialectical subtext on the need for dreams to keep reality humming along, with Mannix the willing sacrificial lamb that keeps it all going to keep the illusion in place. This is a loving tribute to filmmaking, the warts and all, from a pair of filmmakers whose hearts and minds are in the right place.