If Hail, Caesar! is anything more than a series of send-ups of the Hollywood studio system of the 1950s, then I didn’t see it. The Coen Brothers have the luxury of looking back from decades of cynicism that have since passed, so the studio system is immediately suspect as an easy target. However, there is affection to be found in the sincerity that was the basis of the industry of that era, a period when movies were “another potion of balm for aching mankind.” And the Coens channel it to make Hail, Caesar! a rather decent if toothless bauble in their filmography.
Our entry into this world is studio honcho Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a fixer who greases the wheels of the cumbersome production house that is Capitol Pictures. Privately, he also happens to weep over his betrayal to his wife by lying about his cigarette habit. Mannix’s job is to clean up the images of the studio’s stable of actors, from digressions like kinky private photo shoots to arranging marriages. He also oversees meetings with religious leaders to assure the studio’s biggest production yet — Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ — offends no one’s beliefs. Just as the picture is about to wrap production, its star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), known to disappear on benders of drink, goes missing. It turns out he was kidnapped by a group of communists who consider movies — gasp — “instruments of capital.”
It’s a funny film, and a highlight includes the meeting with religious leaders that speaks to the Coens’ skills at buoyant humor at the expense of grave subject matter like faith in God. They also go deep into commie humor, referencing not only Marx but also Herbert Marcuse (John Bluthal), who turns out to be one of the kidnappers that Baird quickly warms up to (in a moment of enlightenment while in discussion with his kidnappers, he compares the problems of capitalism with being bamboozled into shaving a famous actor’s hairy back). An unlikely hero rises in the form of Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a star in Westerns suddenly shuttled into a comedy of manners at Mannix’s whim (one of the film’s greatest jokes is highlighted in the film’s new trailer below). It is his free thinking, as dim as it might seem, that allows him to crack Baird’s disappearance.
The brothers’ affection for the films of John Ford, Busby Bekeley and even Vincente Minnelli comes out in extended scenes that pay tribute to the production numbers featured in many films of that bygone era. The meticulously choreographed numbers walk a balance of irony and plain shiny humor. There are over-the-top horse-riding stunts by Hobie and an extended dance sequence featuring a group of sailors led by Channing Tatum. A lengthy synchronized swimming dance number features Scarlett Johansson, who plays a terrific actress modeled after Esther Williams who can hold a perfect smile while doing frightening dives, until the camera turns off to reveal a plucky attitude.
It is in these reveals that the Coens keep the movie engaging, and it never lets up by playing with the artifice with a wry humor. Hail, Caesar! may not reveal anything anyone with an awareness of the Hollywood system would not already know, but its pleasures are as sincere as its inspirations. The machinations of the industry treated actors like commodities and perpetuated a false idealism. Its concern for image and money gave no one seeking true art any real constructive release, and this flick ends up feeling a bit shallow for a movie that one would expect from the team who last gave us a true masterpiece (Film Review: Inside Llewyn Davis offers elegiac portrait of struggling folky). Still, it has a consistently fun tone befitting of the material that also, thankfully, never veers into darker territories to push it off of any edge, but then that also doesn’t make it as edgy as some may have hoped for from the Coens.
Hail, Caesar! runs 100 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens pretty much everywhere this Friday, Feb. 5. SCREENING UPDATE: The film will be coming to O Cinema Wynwood Friday, Feb. 26 for at least a week-long run.Universal Pictures provided all images in this review and invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.