The Coen Brothers tend to turn on a dime when it comes to the type of films they choose to make. On the one hand, you have a “Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men” or “True Grit,” which becomes a prestige picture and potential Oscar contender. On the other hand, you have a “Raising Arizona,” “Burn After Reading” or “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” which is a bit sillier, but also might have something moving just below the surface. “Hail, Caesar!” fits in the latter mold. It has Joel and Ethan Coen working with the comedic lunacy of a “Burn After Reading” or “The Ladykillers” towards a truth that recalls “Barton Fink,” and not just because of their decision to set their film in the days of Old Hollywood.
Although George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock is front-and-center within the narrative thrust of the film, Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix is the main character of the film. He is the Head of Physical Production at Capitol Pictures. What that means, we will learn, is that he’s a studio “fixer,” making sure that his actors and productions have squeaky-clean reputations in the press to keep the “fantasy” of Hollywood as a dream factory alive in their customers. Even after he spends all day at the studio, putting out fires and keeping up with the whims of his bosses, some of Mannix’s most important work happens after he’s punched out for the day. He spends a lot of nights away from his wife (Allison Pill) and their two kids. He goes to the confessional with his sins; he feels guilty for spending so much time away from his family, and reneging on his promises to stop smoking. But when it comes to the stars and reputation of Capitol Pictures and Hollywood, he will do anything to project a wholesome image. (The first thing we see him do is prevent a starlet from doing a nudie photo shoot.) His big project right now is making sure the studio’s prestige epic, “Hail, Caesar: The Tale of the Christ,” which Whitlock stars in, is theologically acceptable in a way that will not offend any possible religion. When Whitlock is kidnapped, however, his job gets infinitely more complicated. The Whitlock kidnapping isn’t the only thing Mannix has to deal with, though. One of the studio’s biggest female stars, DeeAnna Moran (the wicked Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant, but not married, which at the time (and even now), is something of a scandal. The studio wants a young western star (Hobie Doyle, played by Alden Ehrenreich), to star in a sophisticated comedy directed by Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes, matching the sly hilarity of his “Grand Budapest Hotel” work in a few scenes), with predictably awkward results, while also being seen out on the town with another young studio star, Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio). And there are rumors abound about Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), a song-and-dance star to rival Gene Kelly who may have some answers as to who kidnapped Whitlock, and why. One by one, Mannix has to deal with fires at every turn, and hope they don’t turn into infernos through the pen of gossip columnists like Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by the great Tilda Swinton).
The central premise of “Hail, Caesar!” boils down to the idea of how Hollywood polished the reputations of some of their biggest stars so that they could sell a safe image in an era where risk was frowned upon; remember when studios tried to buy “Citizen Kane” from RKO so as not to piss off William Randolph Hearst? The Coens’s basic theme is how everyone in their film has a part of them they hide from the world, sometimes as a way of subverting the system, as is the case with the group that has kidnapped Whitlock, sometimes as a way of preventing personal embarrassment (such as in DeeAnna’s situation, which puts her in the realm of Jonah Hill’s hilariously droll notary, Joseph Silverman), and sometimes as a way of boosting the profile of a promising star, such as the case with Doyle’s sanctioned night out with Carlotta. Mannix has another side of him, as well, although it’s his negative reputation that is the public one. He spends plenty of time cleaning up the studio’s messes, but he longs to be with his family, and we find out that he has a job offer from Lockheed on the table that could make that a reality. His choice becomes one of where he feels like he could do the most good, and Brolin is terrific at playing Mannix’s sometimes over-the-top existential crisis. In keeping with this theme, the people who conspire to kidnap Whitlock have secrets, as well, as they are communists who, as writers (primarily screenwriters) have been interjecting their politics into their films, making stars like Whitlock unwitting allies in the years before the blacklist that would rock Hollywood to it’s core, and force people to name names. This part is less compelling than Mannix’s adventures, but Whitlock, as played by Clooney, is one of the most easygoing people to be kidnapped in any Coen Brothers film. He has some really stellar moments, and it’s another idiotic character for Clooney to play for the Coens after “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “Intolerable Cruelty” and “Burn After Reading.” The show belongs to two people, though: Brolin, who keeps the film rolling at a delicious clip, and Ehrenreich, who plays the part of a young cowboy out of his depths in the larger world of sophisticated wit and dates for appearances perfectly, but in a key scene with Mannix, shows himself adept at thinking through a situation to a logical conclusion. He’s smarter than he seems, and Ehrenreich is hysterical at playing the part, even if Doyle cannot when removed from his singing cowboy operas.
“Hail, Caesar!” is far from the absurd lunacy of a masterpiece like “The Big Lebowski” or a stand-up double like “Raising Arizona” or “Burn After Reading,” but it has the Coens and their main collaborators (cinematographer Roger Deakins, composer Carter Burwell, production designer Jess Gonchor and costume designer Mary Zophres) at the top of their game as they create a dizzying look at Hollywood at the peak of their powers and control over who they employed. Hollywood doesn’t have that much power now, as the 24-hour news cycle makes someone like an Eddie Mannix difficult to trot out as a spin doctor. Media is everywhere, and the types of situations “Hail, Caesar!” illuminates are tricky to keep hidden. Someone will find out. The film goes back to a time that was both more clean cut, but also more scandalous. The ways of Hollywood haven’t changed much, but their ability to pass themselves off as a squeaky clean industry is long gone. The Coens are looking to kiss that goodbye, and they do so with their trademark wit and purpose. Hail, Coens!