Coen Brothers fans will recognize the backdrop of “Hail, Caesar!,” the new screwball comedy from the prolific siblings. Fifteen years ago they doomed screenwriter Barton Fink (John Turturro) to a hellish stint fighting writer’s block at Capitol Studios. This time around the fictional studio is the setting for one day in the life of a Hollywood fixer.
James Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a shady figure from Tinseltown’s Golden Age. Loosely based on the legendary MGM “producer” of the same name, he solves star’s problems, using his influence to keep some of the most notorious crimes and scandals on the LAPD blotter under wraps. He is, an associate says, a babysitter to “oddballs and misfits.”
As Capitol’s “Head of Physical Production” he’s about to have the busiest day of his career when an up-and-coming starlet is caught in a compromising “French postcard situation” while his leading lady, DeeAnna Moran’s (an Esther Williams-esque Scarlett Johansson), is about to have an out-of-wedlock baby. “is there any way she can adopt her own child?” he wonders.
If that wasn’t enough Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the studio’s biggest star, is drugged and kidnapped from the set of his sword-and-sandal epic Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ. “This is bad!” exclaims actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich). “Bad for movie stars everywhere.”
The action revolves around Brolin’s character, but this is truly an ensemble piece made up of many moving parts. Maybe too many.
“Hail, Caesar!” is a buoyant movie and when it is firing on all cylinders it can only be described as delightful. Clooney’s stagey reaction to meeting Jesus in the movie-within-the-movie—“Squint against the grandeur!”—and Ralph Fiennes as the marvellously named director Laurence Laurentz giving southern hick Hobie an on-set lesson in elocution—“Would that it were so simple.”—are a slices of comedic heaven. An editing mishap involving Frances McDormand, a scarf and a cigarette and Johansson’s hard-boiled dame accent are great character pieces while Channing Tatum channels Gene Kelly in an athletic tour-de-force dance number called “No Dames.” Add to that a breakout performance from Ehrenreich and the wonky Coen sensibility and you have a movie with much to admire.
It’s the other stuff, the connective tissue, that doesn’t hold up. In “Hail, Caesar!” the Coens seem more interested in set pieces than story. In between inspired bits—see above—the movie meanders looking for Mannix to bind it together. Brolin certainly looks the part of a 1950s tough guy but he is a device more than a character. His job is to connect the various story threads but he gets lost between the subplots. From communism to wayward movie stars to nosy twin gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton) and manufactured romances the Coens leave no old Hollywood stone unturned.
“Hail, Caesar!” doesn’t quite come together as a fully formed movie but it does play as a love letter to the cinema. Its a satirical portrait of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the underlying message about the importance of movies should appeal to cinephiles but may have less impact on casual viewers.