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.
If all this weren’t enough, Mannix also has to contend with twin gossip columnists (played by Tilda Swinton) who are circling the studio in search of scandal; a near-fatal accident involving a film editor (Frances McDormand); an accountant (Jonah Hill) enlisted to see whether the pregnant ingénue can legally adopt her own child; and a song-and-dance star (Channing Tatum) harboring more than one Big Secret. Fred Melamed, Patrick Fischler, David Krumholtz, Fisher Stevens, and Alex Karpovsky also make appearances as a support group of disgruntled screenwriters—where were they in your hour of need, Barton?—who have decided to take matters into their own hands.
So Mannix pinballs from crisis to crisis, tamping down gossip here and inventing it there. Along the way, the movie’s loose, likable structure is able to accommodate parodies of a variety of movie genres, from historical epic to cowpoke cornball to drawing-room sizzler. Scene by scene, the movie is a bit uneven, but it’s never long before it presents a moment of genuine glee, whether it be Mannix’s presentation of the Hail, Caesar script to a group of religious luminaries for review (“The Bible, of course, is terrific,” Mannix allows, sounding for an instant like Donald Trump); a marvelous exchange in which Fiennes’s director tries to get through to his out-of-his-depth new star (respond to her “importuning,” he advises, with a “mirthless chuckle”); or an extended, gloriously homoerotic Tatum tap-dance number entitled “No Dames.”
Clooney is once again sublimely self-mocking in this, his fourth outing with the Coens: He has the rare ability to simultaneously be a star and parody one. As the addled cowboy, Ehrenreich enlivens every scene in which he appears, in particular with his rendition of the cheesily marvelous ballad “Lazy Ol’ Moon.” Following minor roles in Blue Jasmine and Stoker, the young actor shows he’s more than ready for center stage. And Fiennes again proves that, his other talents notwithstanding, he’s one of the most gifted comic actors alive. If the rest of the stars studding the cast are not quite so indelible—a few of the roles are scarcely more than cameos—each one fulfills his or her duties with aplomb. In the center of it all, of course, is Brolin, harried yet stoic, a reef of sanity amid a sea of chaos. And no one, no one, has more fun with a voiceover than the movie’s narrator, Michael Gambon.
Is Hail, Caesar! among the Coens best works? Of course not. But as I noted a while back, that is an extraordinarily high bar to clear. Apart from one late misstep—a too-broad comic bit set on the ocean—this latest is an unexpectedly sweet and utterly satisfying confection, a loving sendup of the Hollywood of yesteryear. As Mannix frantically juggles the needs of his studio, he is simultaneously being courted for an executive position at Lockheed. Dismissing the “circus” of Hollywood, his recruiter explains to him that “aviation is serious,” a point he emphasizes by displaying a photo of the H-bomb test at Bikini Atoll. One could hardly ask for a better rebuke to that kind of “seriousness” than the glitzy, ditzy splendor of Hail, Caesar!