A comic homage to true believers renewing their faith in times of hardship, Hail, Caesar! opens with the image of a crucifix looming in candlelight, but Jesus turns out to be a red herring—the epistemologies placed in opposition here are rather more particular to the mid-20th century American mainstream. We have on one side the shadowy bogeyman of the American communist party, and on the other … Hollywood! Twenty-five years after the blazing damnation of Barton Fink, the Coen Brothers have returned to Tinseltown with an almost shocking amount of affection for the same studios—in fact, the exact same (fictional) studio—they once portrayed as forces of capitalist darkness. Hail, Caesar! is a love letter to the artifice, scale and shenanigans of Hollywood in the 1950s. And I’m fairly certain it’s a lot of fun even if you’re not a Turner Classic Movies nerd.
Capitol Studios executive fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is in a fix. Aside from the more routine quagmires—an actress (Scarlett Johansson) pregnant out of wedlock—Mannix learns that one of the studio’s most established stars, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), currently shooting a hugely expensive cornball religious epic, has been kidnapped by a coven of communists, nearly every one of which is, like the eponymous Barton Fink, a disgruntled screenwriter. Mannix also has to contend with duelling identical-twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) threatening to expose a major scandal and a director (Ralph Fiennes) of sophisticated comedies griping about getting hobbled with an especially inarticulate cowboy actor (Alden Ehrenreich). Meanwhile, Mannix is courted by an aviation company offering a handsome salary for services that would not require Mannix to be on call all hours in all manner of sticky situations. “Do you want to run a business or stay stuck in the circus?” the aviation company’s corporate Romeo asks. Given the warm-fuzzy tenor of Hail, Caesar!, you can probably guess what choice Mannix will make.
But it’s not an easy choice. Unlike the real Eddie Mannix, a nasty character who performed similar tasks for MGM back in the day—this Mannix is a family man and devout Catholic. He finds solutions to sordid predicaments daily, concocting enough façades to make him just as much a manufacturer of fabulations as the studio he works for. But when he goes to confession, his tawdriest sins tend to involve fibbing to his wife about staying off the cigarettes. The possibility of a stable income without off-hours hassles is truly tempting, but Hail, Caesar! makes the circus of the movies seem like an almost noble enterprise, a duty-bound machine that supplies the body politic with opiates of hope and joy. The film’s digressions are nearly as numerous as that of The Big Lebowski, and every one of them delights: the recreation of Busby Berkeley’s choreography from Million Dollar Mermaid, or a racy variation on Anchors Aweigh‘s Gene Kelly tap extravaganza fronted by Channing Tatum. Those waiting for the Coens’ characteristic bleak ironies to kick in may be disappointed. Even the kidnapping communist coven, who initially seem set up solely for ridicule, wind up exhibiting integrity. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that the Coens are softening with age, but, as a longtime admirer of their films, it’s refreshing to discover that they can tell a tall tale with this much warmth.
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen