Since it has such deep knowledge and affection for Hollywood, it is a little surprising that the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! arrives in theaters at this time of year. Early February is an odd time for the movies, a lull between winter’s Oscar Bait and when big blockbusters begin again. Longtime Coen fans worried about the film’s quality simply by virtue of its release date, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie’s protagonist would object to it. And yet the timing is ultimately perfect: Hail, Caesar! is delightful mainstream counter-programming, with a mix of sincere old-school entertainment and a subversive philosophical streak. Like many other Coen films, this one is tough to nail down. It is as light as anything they’ve done, yet has the same depth of inquiry as their most serious work.
Our point of entry is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio executive for the fictional studio Capitol Pictures in the early 1950s. When we meet Mannix, he is confessing to a priest that he lies to his wife about stealing cigarettes. It’s a relatively minor sin, and yet it weighs on him because his job requires an air of authority (Brolin underplays the role brilliantly). The Coens follow Mannix’s hectic day, in which he manages crises for every film on the studio lot, and still somehow has time to mull a handsome job offer from a Lockheed headhunter.
Mannix borrows the Western heartthrob Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) and inserts him into a stuffy costume drama directed by Laurence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes). DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) stars in a splashy musical – pun intended – and is unsure how to spin the child she had out of wedlock. The biggest crisis, however, involves Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the studio’s biggest star. A group of communist subversives kidnap Whitlock while he’s still in a Roman Legion costume, and proceed to fill his head with propaganda while he’s their captive. This constant juggling never seems to stress Mannix, and yet in fleeting moments he seems unsure whether he can get through the day.
On a sincere level, Hail, Caesar! successfully recreates the joy from the Golden Age of Hollywood. There are snippets from at least four fake movies within the movies, and the Coens shoot them with a minimal level of irony. The sequence with Johansson is a callback to the “aquamusicals” that made Esther Williams a star, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is stunning. Channing Tatum pops up as a Gene Kelly type, and there is a long, delightful musical number where he and several other accomplished dancers pull off technically challenging tap stunts. None of the fictional characters are exact parodies of real people from the period, and yet there is a familiarity here to anyone who regularly flips the channel to TCM.
While the Coens’ latest includes Hollywood worship, there are barbed criticisms, too. Mannix’s stars are happy for money and fame, yet there are several subplots that point out how they were nothing more than indentured servants. Mannix cares about good taste, only insofar that everything hums on schedule. In the film’s funniest scene, Mannix consults with several holy men – Jewish and Christian – to find out if a DeMille-esque biblical epic is offensive, and the meeting devolves to a half-serious, half-snarky theological discussion. Whitlock’s scenes with the communists take place in a posh Malibu home, and the irony of their ideals and luxury are not lost on the Coens. They see Hollywood as a prism for judgment, and even minor scenes offer commentary on how humanity clashes with an industry designed to crush the individual in the name of entertainment. By veering from musicals to philosophy, the Coens run the risk of creating tonal whiplash, and yet they have the command of tone to pull it off.
Unlike most recent films by the Coens, Hail, Caesar! boasts a massive cast, so some of their top-billed actors barely appear. Jonah Hill shows up for one scene and has maybe six lines of dialogue. Frances McDormand has a glorified cameo, too, although she makes the most of it. The strongest impression, surprisingly, is from Alden Ehrenreich, a relative newcomer. He has a long, funny scene with Fiennes they are at an impasse about a line delivery. Ehrenreich elevates the scene because he does not play Doyle as a dullard, but as a prudent, sharp kid who understands his limitations and wants to be a team player. There is another terrific throwaway scene where Doyle does lasso tricks to pass the time, and Ehrenreich’s natural grace suggest that this may be his breakout role. The Coens use character actors to kooky effect – Tilda Swinton appears as twins who have competing gossip columns– and yet Hail, Caesar! may mark the first time the filmmakers are responsible for catapulting the career of a future star.
The Coens’ worldview is specific and instantly recognizable. They see the world as a chaotic, cruel place, and think it’s funny whenever someone asserts they deserve better. That irony is what drives Fargo’s Jerry Lundegaard, A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik, and several others. That worldview is there in Hail, Caesar!, except the Coens also see the movies as a reprieve from that chaos. Mannix keeps it together for Whitlock and the others, as if he is an intermediary between the Hollywood fantasies and the brutality that defines the real world. This is not a film that unearths how the proverbial sausage gets made. Instead, Hail, Caesar! is about how everyone in Hollywood is a person first, and the quiet sacrifices they make for escapism. In a film that includes lots of messianic imagery, the most provocative thing the Coens can do is worship not what inspires awe, but a well-earned smile.