The Coen Brothers’ latest slapdash comedy Hail, Caesar! is a fun sendup of the 50’s Hollywood studio system that never really goes anywhere. Filled to the brim with star power, backlot sets, texture, and capturing a time gone by, it all looks and feels wonderful. Everything is nevertheless a little aimless, a little thin in the end. Still… as I bounce back and forth in my brain… it has all the Coen Brothers magic and quirk that immediately qualifies it as something wholly unique to their filmography, and even in its mediocrity it’s something better than just about anything else right now.
The film tells a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the Production Manager at Capitol Studios – yes, that Capitol Studios from Barton Fink – who spends his days keeping the money moving behind the scenes. Eddie is a good man, a little too devoted to his job, guilt ridden over sneaking a cigarette here or there against his wife’s wishes. But this day, Eddie has his hands full. The film bounces from backlot sets to sound stages while Eddie must keep a dozen plates spinning. He’s moved B-Western megastar Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich, brilliant) into the stuffy soundstage of a drawing room drama, upsetting the director, Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).
Mannix has to try and spin the potential PR disaster of the studio’s starlet, the bawdy DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johanson), being pregnant out of wedlock. There’s the potential of a new job at Lockheed. Then there’s the nosy twin sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), gossip tabloid queens in the vein of Hedda Hopper, itching to publish a juicy new scandal about the studio’s biggest star, Baird Whitlock.
Oh, right, and Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the lush movie star, has been kidnapped from the set of his swords and sandals epic.
Whitlock’s kidnapping is a framing device of sorts. Clooney plays Whitlock like he does all of his Coen comedy characters, aloof and a little thick-headed. His kidnappers turn out to have a rather fitting 50s motivation, and they easily sway Whitlock over to their side because, well, he isn’t ever really listening. Meanwhile Eddie is trying to please everyone in front of him, and Brolin’s performance is wonderfully understated and self contained.
The best parts of Hail, Caesar! are when we visit these soundstages and watch these films being made. The studio system in Hollywood was like a machine, rifling through productions and moving their actors, mere commodities, from place to place to get the job done. One of the best parts of the whole picture involves the hayseed Hobie Doyle’s attempt at drawing room drama on the set of Fiennes’ “proper” film. There is Channing Tatum, and his film within the film, riffing on Gene Kelly with a great sailor-themed dance number. It’s a great number just as much as it’s an imitation, full of life and energy and thriving on its nostalgic origins. Cameos from Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, and even Christopher Lambert (!) fill the periphery with some brief comedic asides.
And yet, when all is said and done, Hail, Caesar! never really goes anywhere. As a collection of moments, it’s brilliant. The humor is sharp and well-crafted, all the performances bounce off one another like a jazz band, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is so brilliantly saturated. One moment in the third act, the story and old Hollywood studio pictures seemingly meld into a surreal blend of fantasy and reality, and it works. But something is absent, unable to tie these great pieces together like the last puzzle piece one character can’t manage to fit into his puzzle in a later scene. It isn’t perfect, but it’s worth seeing for anyone who appreciates the Coen Brothers’ craft and creativity, even when they miss the mark a little.