The Coens impress again with this hilarious love letter to Old Hollywood.
In traipsing Old-Hollywood comedy Hail, Caesar!, sibling duo Joel and Ethan Coen reflect on the cyclonic nature of showbiz, much like its spiritual predecessor, Barton Fink. That movie (which, my god, is now 25 years old) is nastier and more idiosyncratic, skewering the film industry with voracious (and incredibly funny) disdain. The Coens’ 2016 offering is more relaxed and lighthearted, but what it lacks in crackling energy and forward momentum it makes up for with finely tuned, detail-oriented jokes and an overabundance of charm.
The charm factor is in effect no more than during one of the film’s several movie-within-the-movie, genre-parody scenes, in which Channing Tatum (playing Burt Gurney, a Gene Kelly-like hoofer) performs a jaunty tap number in a sailor suit. (Few current screen actors can move like this man, and the Coens don’t squander the chance to let him tear up a song-and-dance routine.) The movie’s set in 1951, predominantly unfolding on the grounds of Capitol studios (the same fictional studio from Barton Fink), and Gurney’s ditty is one of the many movies being filmed on the sunny studio grounds, including a glittery synchronized-swimming production (starring an Esther Williams-channeling Scarlett Johansson) and “Hail, Caesar!,” a Ben Hur-style epic starring self-involved, strong-chinned leading man named Baird Whitlock (played by George Clooney in the vein of Charlton Heston).
While most of the characters we see are cleverly-packaged homages to the stars of Dream Factory heyday, one is taken straight from the Hollywood history books. Capitol is absolutely bustling with chaotic activity on a daily basis, and one man is responsible for holding the whole operation together: Eddie Mannix, a real-life, legendary studio exec who put out fires at MGM for years. He’s embodied by Josh Brolin, who leads the charge as the main focus and anchor of the otherwise scattered story. Mannix is a bulldozing man on a mission, zooming around the lot and around town making unblinking threats and using cool-headed negotiation tactics to keep all of his pictures running on schedule and in harmony. There’s no one better, and a lucrative job offer from Lockheed has him considering leaving the loopy microcosm of Capitol to make a bigger buck, albeit for dirtier work.
Much is made of Mannix’s soul searching; the film opens with him repenting in a confessional, a place we see him return to twice more as he considers the Lockheed offer and reflects on the more questionable facets of his moral make-up and career choices. Brolin and the Coens have always had a fruitful partnership, and while Mannix isn’t as monumental a creation as Llewelyn Moss, for instance, he’s still interesting enough to stand out amid the crowd of larger-than-life personalities running around the rest of the film.
One such personality (my favorite, in fact) is Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a singing cowboy star who can perform eye-popping, impossible feats on horseback and has a gift for lasso acrobatics, but can’t read proper dialogue for squat. When he’s shoehorned into a production that calls for him to wear a tuxedo and walk into a room full of aristocrats speaking in Mid-Atlantic accents, it makes for one of the funniest scenes I’ve seen in recent memory (watching the baby-faced buckaroo do his involuntary cowboy strut in a tuxedo nearly killed me). The comedy’s all in the details, like how the stuffy production is under the hilariously named “Laurence Laurentz Presents” banner. Hobie isn’t a mere caricature, though; later on, he plays a key role in the film’s plot that shows us that he’s a true hero (which explains why he’s so awkward on a proper movie set; he’s too genuine to fake anything).
The dilemma at the center of the story that keeps the movie from being a randomly arranged series of unrelated scenes involves the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock by a stable of scorned communist screenwriters. As Mannix tries his best to handle the situation, he’s bombarded by a litany of on-set issues: Johansson’s starlet is looking to avoid a pregnancy scandal; the great Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) refuses to tolerate Hobie’s atrocious line-reading skills. On top of that, he’s stalked by the film’s resident Hedda Hopper-esque columnists, persistent twin sisters played by a fantastic Tilda Swinton.
Mannix’s plate-spinning is involving enough, but I couldn’t help but yearn for more time with the rest of the cast. Johansson, Swinton and Tatum are super entertaining and part of me thinks it would have been nice to make Hail, Caesar a true ensemble piece, downsizing Mannix’s screen time a bit to give the others more room to do their thing. The Coens seem to be having a lot of fun stepping into the shoes of filmmakers from classical Hollywood and drinking in its grandiosity all while skewering the absurdity and silliness of its inherent artifice. They’ve become such assured storytellers and filmmakers that, even when they take it easy, we’re on the edge of our seats, grinning from ear to ear.