The Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, both sophisticated and silly, is, as Joel Coen put it in a press conference at the Berlin International Film Festival, “a rather romanticized version of Hollywood in the 1950s.”
That’s worth noting because it’s quite rare that the Coen brothers romanticize anything in their movies.
There’s an affection for the characters in the film, even the ones they satirize most brutally.
While their 1991 movie Barton Fink looked at a New York playwright in Hollywood, an outsider looking in whose life devolved into surreal destruction, Hail, Caesar! is a paean to the insiders and to the often wonderful movies they created.
These most independent of directors recognize that the factory-like nature of the old-time studios and the formulas they imposed on directors reined in self-indulgence, and that under these constraints the studios often produced movies that were infused with wit, energy and joy.
Hail, Caesar! stars George Clooney as Baird Whitlock, a Charlton Hestontype star known for his epic roles.
Clooney is perfect as a man who is great at posing and who takes everything seriously. Clooney had one of his funniest roles in their 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which was a nod to Preston Sturges’s Hollywood insider classic, Sullivan’s Travels (1941). Sullivan’s Travels was about a successful, sheltered director of broad comedies who dreamed of making a movie of great social importance, which he wanted to call “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and the intricacy of this reference demonstrated the Coens’ love of Hollywood insider movies.
While Clooney dominates Hail, Caesar!, the hero is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a fixer for the studio, whose job is to keep all the stars in line and takes his work seriously. A devout Catholic, wracked with guilt over nonexistent sins, Mannix doesn’t judge his actors for their many transgressions but treats them like a preschool teacher would approach children whose parents never discipline them.
When Baird is kidnapped by a group of high-minded Communists, Mannix assumes at first that the star is on a bender, which is more annoying than upsetting. He is busy trying to avoid all kinds of other trouble, and there are some great scenes where he gets representatives of various religions giving their take on a Jesus scene in Baird’s upcoming epic.
Mannix also has to cope with a single and pregnant aquatic star (Scarlett Johansson, channeling Esther Williams, inspired by a story about Loretta Young) and twin gossip columnists, played by Tilda Swinton, who want to expose an ancient scandal about Baird (based on an actual rumor about Clark Gable and director George Cukor).
There are starlets posing for porn and, in the film’s funniest subplot, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a cowboy star, is given an image makeover and cast in a drawingroom comedy, directed by the effete Laurence Laurents (Ralph Fiennes).
The hilarious sequence in which Laurents drills Doyle in how to sound upper-class is a reference to scenes with dialogue coaches in Singin’ in the Rain. Channing Tatum is also on hand, playing a tap-dancing sailor in a musical reminiscent of Anchors Aweigh and On the Town.
The Coens love kidnappings — both Fargo and The Big Lebowski centered on kidnappings, real and fake — and they turn Baird’s abduction into delicious absurdity.
Many American Communists of that period didn’t let their ideology keep them from living the good life. The Hail, Caesar! Communists are ensconced in a gorgeous Malibu hideaway, where they spend their time studying the works of writers such as Karl Marx, and Baird is intrigued that Marx spells “capital” with a K. These scenes of Baird and the Communists are the Coens at their quirkiest, with more layers of irony than a spider’s web has strands.
Even better, the Commies here are played by a kind of hall of fame of the best character actors working today.
Among these, you’ll recognize Fisher Stevens (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Patrick Fischler (Jimmy Barrett on Mad Men), Tom Musgrave (who starred on the first season of the Fargo TV series), David Krumholtz (The Newsroom, Numb3rs), Max Baker (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest), Alex Karpovsky (Ray on Girls) and Wayne Knight (Newman from Seinfeld). With these as the Communists and dozens more wonderful character actors (among them Jonah Hill plays a kind of fixer’s fixer), the movie truly brings to mind the days of the contract players in Hollywood studios, when the real reason to see American movies was not only the gorgeous stars but also the supporting players such as Edward Everett Horton, Eugene Pallette and so many others.
Once it may have been fashionable to say that British cinema had the best actors, but Hail, Caesar! will put that claim to rest for all time. Giving great actors like these a chance to shine is the most fitting tribute there can be to Hollywood’s Golden Age.
The movie swings deliriously from witty social commentary to slapstick and back again, with an ease that no one else could pull off. Hail, Caesar! probably won’t win any Oscars next year, and many critics will dismiss it as a minor work. But in 20 years, there may well be Hail, Caesar! costume parties, the way there are Big Lebowski fests today. And whatever there is in place of television in a couple of decades, when Hail, Caesar! comes on, you’ll end up watching it again.