It might not be doing Joel and Ethan Coen justice to call Hail, Caesar! simply a movie. The brothers’ latest comic farce is really a dozen or so movies rolled up into one attractive package and shot out of a cannon to projectors across America. The man who holds all of these films together is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a hotshot studio manager who suppresses his private demons in order to cater to the whims and wants of his stars.
Mannix drifts between films sets with the steady gait of one who has seen it all and singularly knows how all the pieces fit together. Each of these sets represents a world unto itself, but they all belong to a galaxy that Mannix knows every corner of. He seems to transform into the truest, most confident version of himself when he’s putting out fires; the picture of him barking orders at his underlings hardly resembles the sheepish man he becomes during his daily ritual of Catholic confession (His big crime? Sneaking a couple cigarettes between takes).
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But even Mannix has a tendency to get lost in his own kind of movie, a Michael Gambon-narrated film noir that begins in the early hours of the morning and finds him slipping into the role of private detective throughout the day, searching for the men who kidnapped super star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from right under his nose. He never exactly seems worried, though he also never has as much fun as the audience does at his expense.
Hail, Caesar! luxuriates a bit too much in its metaphysical premise, but it succeeds in making the business side of 1950s Hollywood a fascinating thing to behold. Whether he’s dealing with a troubling pair of gossip journalists (twins played by Tilda Swinton), setting up a fake marriage for his single-mother starlet (Scarlett Johansson), or finding a male lead for his prized director (Ralph Fiennes), Mannix rarely runs into a dull moment. After all, it’s difficult to be boring when you’re always on the brink of catastrophe.
Hail, Caesar! has this same enthralling quality about it. The film’s various plot lines perpetually threaten to sink the ship, but the Coens somehow keep everything afloat. It’s an impressive feat, to be sure, and one that can only be pulled off by a pair of filmmakers undaunted by risk. At one point, a character describes the movie business as a “circus,” and in that scenario, the Coens would be guys swallowing swords while they jump through a ring of fire. A truly amazing thing to behold, so long as you never really question the point.
The point — at least the one that stands out most from all the silliness — is to shine a cynical light on the ironies of Hollywood stardom. Nearly every actor in Hail, Caesar! has a secret interior life that directly opposes the one they present onscreen. There’s Channing Tatum’s strapping young sailor, who makes a good show of being an All-American musical lead before hitching a ride to communist Russia in a Soviet submarine. There’s Clooney’s Baird Whitlock, a morally bankrupt boor capable of eliciting tears in front of the camera and groans everywhere else. And of course there’s the aforementioned Scarlett Johansson, a beautiful mermaid who ends up having a thick Jersey accent and a problem with flatulence. The only actor who doesn’t put on airs is Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), who plays a cowboy onscreen and spends his dinner dates tying noodles into miniature lassos.
If Doyle can’t break character, it’s because he doesn’t know any better. One of the film’s funniest scenes involves Fiennes’ prissy director, Laurence Laurentz, attempting to teach Doyle how to say the line “Would that it were so simple” with the affectation of a British aristocrat. Doyle eventually drives Laurentz mad, but he merely shrugs it off and says he’s doing his best. This is the type of character the Coens seem to sympathize with most: the simpleton who literally can’t imagine being anything other than his true self. In a world full of phonies, maybe that guy is the closest thing there is to a hero.
Or maybe the real hero is Mannix, who pushes away his real-life problems at home in order to help others chase their Hollywood dreams. Mannix is overseeing a film about the life of Jesus Christ, and it’s easy to read the subtext that he’s a kind of savior himself. The guy might not be able to turn water into wine, but he sure seems to know what’s best for his stars. There’s a scene in which he slaps Whitlock and screams at him to “Be a star!”, and part of this feels like divine retribution. God may be all-forgiving, but he also makes you pay for your sins.
There’s a lot going on in Hail, Caesar!, but in the end, it’s all a bit too silly to register as important. The Coen brothers have played this whimsical game before with Burn After Reading, and one gets the sense that these films exist to help them burn off some steam before tackling the next monumental drama. Nonetheless, Hail, Caesar! satisfies that one criterion that matters most in Hollywood, and will for time immemorial: it’s entertaining as hell.