At first glance, the Coen brothers’ latest movie, Hail, Caesar! seems scarcely a Coens movie at all. Bright and genial, it lacks the cruel edge of many of their comedies (in particular their most recent, 2008’s Burn After Reading), and its moderately haphazard, episodic plotting is a far cry from the clockwork precision typical of their films.
But look a touch more closely, and the movie’s Coen-world antecedents become clear. The Hollywood setting recalls Barton Fink (though far more amiably); the period pastiche calls to mind The Hudsucker Proxy (though far less gratingly); there are echoes of the Los Angeles of Intolerable Cruelty and that of The Big Lebowski (which also bequeathed its looser narrative vibe); and, as in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis, the proceedings are enlivened by a series of delightful musical sequences. The plot even centers on a kidnapping, as it has so many times before (Raising Arizona, Fargo, Lebowski). This is indeed a Coens movie, merely one set in a cheerier key than any of its predecessors.
Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, the “Head of Physical Production” at a mythical, mid-century Capitol Pictures. (Though he shares a name and a profession with the real-life Hollywood “fixer” Eddie Mannix, the similarities pretty much end there.) Over the course of a couple days, Mannix is required to resolve a series of back-lot crises large and small. An Esther Williamsy star of “aquamusicals” (Scarlett Johansson) has gotten herself too pregnant to squeeze comfortably into her mermaid tail and—worse from a studio PR perspective—seems disinclined to marry the dad-to-be. A hokey young star of Western shoot-‘em-ups (Alden Ehrenreich) is awkwardly rebranded as the leading man for a society picture being directed by a noted aesthete (Ralph Fiennes). Most problematic, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the studio’s upcoming epic Hail, Caesar: A Story of the Christ, has been kidnapped by a mysterious group calling themselves “The Future,” who confine him in a sleek, ocean-cliff mansion worthy of Tony Stark.