The more you know about Hollywood in the so-called Golden Age (roughly late 1930s through early ’50s), the bigger kick you’re likely to get out of Hail, Caesar! This latest comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen is a fond and funny Hollywood farce about a day in the life of a beleaguered studio troubleshooter trying to ward off scandal, and keep his stars out of trouble from one hour to the next.
The entertaining story unfolds ca. 1950, the heyday of the studio system. And what sells the movie is the Coens’ elaborate recreation of popular movie vignettes of the era—a stunt-filled chase scene from a cowboy movie, an elegant drawing-room comedy, a musical production number, a Biblical epic, and even an Esther Williams-style aquatic ballet. Not to mention the added fun of playing spot-that-star with contemporary actors popping up in small roles as the stars, starlets, and studio bigwigs of the Coens’ fictional Capitol Pictures.
Front and center is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the studio’s hired gun. With his own office on the back lot, his mission is to keep Capitol personnel from embarrassing the studio, making daily phone reports to an unseen studio mogul whose name sounds a lot like “Mr. Skank.” It’s a 24/7 job, whether he’s breaking up an ingénue’s late-night photo shoot for a girlie magazine, or neutralizing damaging stories before they become fodder for waspish, rival twin sister gossip columnists named Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played with relish by Tilda Swinton).
But a problem arises that even Eddie might not be able to fix: one of the studio’s biggest stars, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), disappears off the set of the epic Hail, Caesar. (He plays a Roman centurion who converts to Christianity after giving a stirring speech at the Crucifixion.) In fact, he’s been kidnapped and whisked away to a ritzy Malibu beach house by a band of disgruntled—well, no spoilers here; suffice it to say the HUAC is just ramping up its attacks on the industry (so well depicted in Trumbo), and the family dog is named “Engels.”
Eddie patrols the back lot, searching for clues before either of the Thackers gets wind of Whitlock’s disappearance. As he visits one sound stage after another, we see snippets of Capitol movies in production, replicated by the Coens with adroit authenticity, and tongue-in-cheek. There’s an entire Gene Kelly-type musical number featuring a corps of dancing sailors led by star hoofer Burt Gurney (and yes, that is Channing Tatum, in a routine that could easily have come from the Freed unit at MGM).
Scarlett Johansson pops up—literally—as aquatic star DeeAnna Moran (rising up out of a circle of swimming chorus girls), whose foul mouth and tough-cookie persona belie her sugary good-girl screen image. And an entire subplot is devoted to singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (baby-faced Alden Ehrenreich), a real-life wrangler and popular stunt-rider who gets nervous when he has to talk onscreen. Especially when the bosses decide to put him in a tux in a posh comedy of manners.
Ralph Fiennes makes the most of his role as the somewhat twee, but eminently patient British director Laurence Laurentz, trying to coach goodhearted but hopeless Hobie through his dialogue without losing his own sanity. Fiennes’ attempted elocution lesson is funny for a minute, although the Coens let it go on too long.
Meanwhile, the none-too-bright, but impressionable Baird, clanking around in his centurion costume, gets an earful on the body politic from his captors. And as the day’s events play out, life imitates art for these icons of make-believe—Hobie gets to ride to the rescue and save the day, and DeeAnna gets an unexpected happy ending. However, when Baird attempts to preach the gospel of what he’s picked up from his abductors to the exasperated Eddie, he gets a slightly different reception than the awe inspired by the centurion’s speech at the feet of Christ.
Brolin’s rock-solid Eddie anchors the film, and Frances McDormand (Mrs. Joel Coen) has a funny cameo as a chain-smoking film editor in this sly riff on the business of making dreams.
*** (out of four)
With Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Scarlett Johansson, and Ralph Fiennes. Written, Produced and Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen. A Universal release. Rated PG-13. 106 minutes.