Hail, Caesar! – the latest film from the Coen Brothers – serves as a kind of comedy companion piece to their earlier dark masterpiece Barton Fink. However, unlike that film, this is no vision of Hollywood as hell. Instead, contrary to what some critics have claimed, it is an affectionate tribute to the Hollywood studio system of the 1950s. Yes it occupies the same universe as Barton Fink (right down to the same studio, Capital Pictures), shot through with the Coen’s trademark surreal wit, but this is less sharp satire and more warm send-up.
The film follows studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who manages the various crises and divas that cause him problems on a regular basis. For example, when starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) gets herself pregnant out of wedlock, he has to find a way to maintain her “wholesome” image, and that of the studio. He also has to make the best of idiotic decisions from the studio boss, for instance when said boss insists that cowboy B-movie star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) take the lead in a prestigious talky drama which he is clearly unsuited for, much to the chagrin of its director, the hilariously named Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). However, the real challenge comes when Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), dim-witted star of Ben Hur-esque Biblical epic (entitled Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ), is kidnapped by a gang of communist writers.
A tangled web of hilarity ensues, but the plot is not particularly focussed. Instead, the film seems more a patchwork of well-observed and often hilarious sequences, such as an On the Town type musical number, gentle parodies of The Lone Ranger and Busby Berkley/Esther Williams musicals (especially Million Dollar Mermaid) and a superb scene where Mannix tries to placate the Catholic Legion of Decency, the Lutherans, the Greek Orthodox and the Jewish religious community by making sure their script for Hail, Caesar isn’t going to offend anyone.
The cast, which also includes Michael Gambon’s spot-on narration, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, are all excellent. Fiennes almost steals the film with his “Were that it ‘twer so simple” scene (recalling the “I can’t stand him” scene from Singin’ in the Rain). However, it is Brolin who dominates. His Eddie Mannix may appear cynical, but he actually really believes in what he does, maintaining the façade of his dream factory and bringing entertainment to the masses. Outside of his job, he is obviously an essentially decent man, loving of his wife and children, and even wanting to do the will of God, as he states during bookend scenes in a Catholic confessional.
As I mentioned earlier, the script meanders somewhat, but when the individual scenes are so endearing, one cannot help but be entertained. Therefore this might not rank as among the Coen’s very best works, but I thoroughly enjoyed every minute.