The Coen Brothers are back and does their presence ever help to lighten the load of the dregs of winter. Their latest, Hail, Caesar!, is being approached as one of their more lightweight affairs — presumably because it’s a comedy — but I’m not quite ready to go with that label, and even if I were, I wouldn’t be using it in a negative sense. No, I have a sense there’s more to the Coens’ Hollywood comedy than is apparent on the surface — something I think subsequent viewings will make evident. In a sense — because it also takes place at the mythical Capitol Pictures — it’s a more playful, less nightmarish continuation of their Barton Fink (1991). Hail, Caesar! is set a few years later and the Hollywood power structure has changed, and so have the movies. The political troubles of the House Un-American Activities Committee has darkened the scene, the world has become a more dangerous place with the threat of nuclear annihilation, and the very existence of the movies appears to be threatened by the encroachment of television.
At the center of all this is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) — a character based (loosely) on the MGM studio executive of that name. Not only is Mannix — a staunch Catholic prone to taking confession on a daily basis — the head of production at this ersatz MGM (mash-up at least three different studios), but he’s the studio “fixer” in charge of keeping the stars out of trouble, or at least out of the gossip columns and jail. Some of the potential scandals in the film are grounded in reality — the Scarlett Johansson storyline emerges from Loretta Young adopting the illegitimate daughter she had with Clark Gable — and others grounded in rumors that won’t quite die. In this regard, Hail, Caesar! is something of an insider film, and that may hurt it at the box office. It’s definitely a movie where the more you know, the funnier it is. Still, you don’t have to know these things in order to follow it.
The central plot involves the kidnapping of star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) by a mysterious group (communist, it turns out) calling themselves “The Future.” (In point of fact, they’re mostly disgruntled red writers and not especially good radicals.) Whitlock’s disappearance comes at a time when he has one more scene — an important one — to shoot in the studio’s big religious epic Hail, Caesar! (subtitled “A Tale of the Christ” after Ben-Hur). Just as bad, though, is the fact that feuding twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton) are not only on the scent of the disappearance, but are about to dredge up an old scandal involving Whitlock. Along the way we also deal with DeeAnna Moran (Johansson), the studio’s Esther Williams figure, musical star Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum, who turns out to be surprisingly adept at musicals), fussy (read: gay) director Laurence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes), who is saddled with turning singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle (a very funny Alden Ehrenreich) into a real actor. And in the midst of it is Mannix trying to hold it all together while deciding whether or not to take a cushy job in the H-bomb business.
Hail, Caear! is a both satire of and a love letter to old Hollywood in all its Technicolored overkill and silliness. It’s a kind of absurdist crash course in movie history, since many of the more ridiculous things we see — like a gathering of various religious scholars weighing in on whether the script of Hail, Caesar! will offend anyone — are really quite authentic. Yet there’s a certain end-of-an-era melancholy hovering over it all, since it’s impossible not to realize that this wacky, strange, fantastic little world of Hollywood — with all its artifice and silliness and petty concerns — will soon no longer exist like this, and that the world is perhaps a little poorer for that passing. This is what makes Hail, Caesar! a good bit more than it might at first seem. Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking.