Behind all the glitz and glamour of Old Hollywood lies a seedy side that has lined the pages of gossip columns and books throughout the years, only finding its way on the silver screen long after all the participants in the debauchery were dead and gone. When a star had gone awry and the public faces of the old studio system feared the moralistic scribblings of a Luella Parsons or Hedda Hopper, a fixer would be employed to make sure the salacious details never found their way to the public. This, of course, was before the internet and before the studio system of old had long faded. Aside from being brilliant filmmakers in their own right, Joel and Ethan Coen are also more than acquainted with the history of Hollywood and this era. With their latest comedic romp, Hail, Caesar!, the Coen Brothers craft a film that consists of multiple homages to the films of yesteryear while never hiding the sordid details that the fixers worked tirelessly to obscure, not to mention its toying with the darkened history of the Hollywood blacklist.
When we first see Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), he’s in the confessional booth, his hands wrapped tightly around his hand as he confesses his sins – he told his wife that he’d quit smoking and had three cigarettes that day. Mannix is the Head of Physical Production at Capitol Pictures. When he isn’t personally making sure that the biggest and brightest stars’ indiscretions aren’t seeping into the papers, he’s shepherding a number of projects on the studio lot. The big prestige picture for Capitol this year is Hail, Caesar, which tells the story of Christ through the eyes of a Roman solider played by the studio’s major star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). But Baird is kidnapped in the middle of production, and Mannix is forced to oversee the payment of the ransom to secure the release of his major star while at the same time tending to other issues on the studio lot, like the pregnancy of one star, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), and the transition of cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) onto the set of the new film from prestigious director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).
Because Hail, Caesar! Is a Coen Brothers film, don’t expect the filmmaking duo to provide a straightforward tale of a missing star. Instead, there are multiple digressions and movies within the movie that see the directors trying on so many different hats without ever diminishing their inherent wit. With each digression from the film’s central plot there are a number of laughs to be found. One particular scene where Laurence Laurentz is trying to coach his would-be star Hobie on his elocution is the kind of layered idiocy the Coen’s are able to mine for more laughs that should be possible. Oh, would that it were so simple.
On one viewing, it’s almost impossible to recount all the various nods to Hollywood history. There’s one sequence with Scarlet Johansson that recalls the intricate choreography of Busby Berkley only to have the sequined scene end with the starlet enraged and speaking in her thick East Coast accent. Then there is the sequence from a film in production on the Capitol Pictures lot that features Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), a song and dance man, which is strikingly reminiscent of the old Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra film On the Town. Meanwhile, the Baird Whitlock-led Hail, Caesar is very much like a Cecil B. DeMille epic, the work of Laurence Laurentz has the feel of an Ernst Lubitsch comedy of glitz and class, and the cowboy romps of Hobie Doyle are like the B-movie westerns of Gene Autry. Not merely content with paying homage to the films of yesteryear, the film also contains dueling gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by the incomparable Tilda Swinton), twin sisters fighting each other for the latest gossip scoop. The competing columnists are a stand-in for the aforementioned Hopper and Parsons, who each terrorized the studio system with their syndicated columns.
*POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD, THOUGH NOTHING CAN REALLY SPOIL THIS FILM*
The mysterious organization that has kidnapped Baird Whitlock is a group of blacklisted screenwriters, Communists who want to use the star to retrieve a portion of the proceeds that they’ve earned for the studio. What makes this premise so funny, aside from the more obvious gags like one of them reading Soviet Life magazine, is the fact that Baird Whitlock quickly finds himself enamored with the teachings of his captors. This isn’t a Stockholm syndrome situation, but a man of weak convictions that quickly takes a shine to the broad concepts introduced to him. A star who has lived a lush and pampered life finds himself to be a champion of the proletariat after an evening with some Communists, many of whom inserted their ideology, unbeknownst to him, into the films that raised his star. Of course, that newfound ideology is just as easily shaken.
As to be expected, the Coen Brothers get great performances out of all the stars in their massive ensemble cast. Brolin is great as the prompt and punctual Eddie Mannix, a man whose job it is to cover up the sins of others yet goes to confession on a daily basis. Clooney once again shines as the kind of dumb that only the Coens’ could write for him, giving another strong comedic performance that we haven’t seen from the actor since Burn After Reading. But the real standout of Hail, Caesar! is Alden Ehrenreich as the cowboy star pulled from his comfort zone. It’s another one of the Coens’ trademark imbeciles, and Ehrenreich does so much with the part. He carries himself with the charm of an old-time cowboy star, yet speaks with a tragic and silly southern drawl that gives his director fits.
32 years into their filmmaking career, the Coen Brothers have yet to make a bad movie and they’re not going to start disappointing now. Like practically all their films, Hail, Caesar! is full of details and scenes that require multiple viewings to fully grasp the audacious whole. But Hail, Caesar! still works wonderfully on its first go ‘round, with so many scenes of witty banter and dumb characters that I was all but out of breath upon exiting the theater. Nobody else could make a movie with such reverence and honesty in its genuinely hilarious portrayal of Hollywood history, let alone being so comedic about subjects that are as tragic as the blacklist or old Hollywood fixers. Then again, nobody can do what the Coen Brothers do, be it in drama or comedy. They are masters without peers. Hail, Coens!