One of the things that you start to notice after you’ve taken several of the journeys of Joel and Ethan Coen is that often when you get to the end you’ve sort of arrived back at the beginning. Little headway has been made though a few lessons have been learned. There is a glorious life-goes-on-quality to their best work that I personally find irresistible. It’s the peak of their best work like Blood Simple, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and even lesser fare like The Hudsucker Proxy and Burn After Reading; it is more fun to play in their pond then it is to reach a destination.
Hail, Caesar! is in that tradition. It’s not their best film, but I’m happy that I saw it. It’s a giddy, colorful and sublimely goofy confection, a trip through Hollywood’s Golden Age and a heightened vision of what that era was all about. The brothers establish their story not with a singular narrative but with a structure that feels more like a series of short stories merged together with a common theme. The lynch-pin is jug-jawed, no-nonsense Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) a fixer at a major Hollywood studio. If there’s a problem, he’s there to solve it – If a star misbehaves and is in danger of having their career upended then it is his job to spin the issue back to a clean slate.
The timeline is fuzzy. We are at some point between World War II and the birth of Rock and Roll and we meet Eddie as he deals with a handful of problems. First, the front office wants him to move simple- minded singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich, playing a version of Roy Rogers) from B-westerns to leading man despite the fact that he can’t really act. Secondly, he’s asked to deal with aquatic musical star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johannson, playing a version of Esther Williams) whose undisclosed, and unplanned, pregnancy is causing her mermaid suit to shrink. Eddie needs to figure out how to manipulate the problem so it doesn’t become a PR nightmare. On top of DeeAnna’s problem comes the sudden disappearance of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, playing a version of Tyrone Power) off the set of a massive biblical epic that is one final scene away from wrapping. Eddie has a ransom note from an organization called “The Future,” whatever that means. What happens in his story I wouldn’t dare spoil.
Eddie’s attempts to deal with these possible PR issues are made worse by the presence of a pair of sisters, Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton and both thinly molded after Hedda Hopper). Dealing with all of these would-be crises, it’s no wonder that Eddie is considering accepting a cushy position at Lockheed that will mean a lifetime of security. He’s a good guy, a bit rough around the edges, but a good joe whose moral compass is sending him into confession during practically every lunch break.
What is so beautiful about Hail, Caesar! is that it’s such a wonderful, loving tribute to the Hollywood Studio system. Meeting each of these characters is an excuse to get a glimpse into the kinds of pictures that big studios use to make: The musical, the western, the love story, the biblical epic. They’re all crafted in a lovely Technicolor dream world that is a treat for the eyes.
And, of course, since this is a Coen brothers movie the characters are written with one more dimension than we might expect. My favorite is giddy Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum playing a version of Gene Kelly) whose smiling, easy-going charm on the set is matched by his super-serous political agenda off the set (more I cannot say). He’s part of a hilarious musical number with a group of sailors in a bar who are about to shove off and lament that they won’t see any dames – though based on the way they dance with each other, it doesn’t look like it will be a problem.
I enjoyed a great deal of Hail, Caesar! but if I have one complaint its that this is a confection without many roots. You realize that when it’s over you’ve seen a day in the life but there’s not much meat on the bone. This is a great looking movie with some smart dialogue and great characters. I’m happy that I took the journey, as I always am with the Coen brothers. The movie is giddy, good-hearted and fun.