True Confession: I don’t typically care for Coen Brothers movies. The hubs enjoyed Raising Arizona but I never even smiled. I stayed far away from Fargo. Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? had no appeal, I say I want to watch The Big Lebowski but I’ve never gotten around to it, and by now I’d figured the Coens and I would never mix. So, how did I end up at the screening for Hail, Caesar! and, more importantly, what did I think while I was there?
I chose to go because the trailers made the movie look sweet and funny, and I can’t wait to buy it on Blu-ray and watch it over and over because it was actually sweet and hilarious.
Hail, Ceasar! is, at its core, a love letter to Old Hollywood. We follow Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the West Coast studio head of Capitol Pictures, over the course of a couple of very stressful days. Mannix is a “fixer”, someone who figures out how to solve and/or hide the various issues – moral, legal, and otherwise – that his various studio denizens get themselves into. There was a real life Mannix who was extremely effective but not necessarily the most upstanding guy, but the version in this movie is a decent, hard-working, hard worrying, devoted family man.
The movie showcases various types of movies that built studios like MGM (where the real Mannix worked) – the water extravaganza, the musical, the epic, the Western, the drawing room drama – but the main plot, what Eddie’s dealing with as we follow him, is a noir mystery. A noir mystery bathed in California sunshine and pastel colors. There is no real danger here, and that’s part of the point of the movie.
Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of Capitol’s big budget Biblical epic, “Hail, Caesar!” (yes, the title is also the name of the epic film-within-a-film that’s one of many in production on the Capitol lot) is kidnapped and Eddie has to find him, while solving what to do with twin sister competing gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton), fixing the latest morals situation the studio’s “ethereal and pure” (and already twice divorced) swimming star (Scarlett Johannsen) has found herself in, dealing with the studio head’s decision to move the handsome and talented – with a gun, a horse, a rope, and riding tricks, but not so much with speaking – singing cowboy (newcomer Alden Ehrenreich) into the stuffy drawing room drama he doesn’t belong in, arranging premiere dates for his stars, and then some, all while fielding a tempting job offer from a “real business”, an aerospace firm that doesn’t need someone to “fix” anything but to manage functioning adults.
Hail, Caesar! is loaded with cameos. Some you’ll recognize immediately, some you won’t, but that’s part of the fun of a cameo-laden movie like this.
Channing Tatum steals the show as a Gene Kelly-type star Burt Gurney – his song and dance number is both excellent and hilarious – but the performances are uniformly good. Brolin is perfect as the man we follow and ultimately care about. Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle the Singing Cowboy is a revelation, and his scenes with Veronica Osorio as the Carmen Miranda-type Carlotta Valdez crackle with sweet, unaffected chemistry. I desperately wanted to find out that Hobie and Carlotta ended up together, happily married, as the only two normal, functioning actors Capitol Pictures has on its lot.
Despite his inability to memorize or recite the long, drawn-out speeches needed for the stuffy drawing room drama, Hobie turns out to be the only actor Mannix can actually trust to think, both when Mannix shares what’s going on and then on his feet, when Hobie spots a key item and takes action in order to save the day. The rest of them need the babysitting Mannix is at the studio to provide, and they need it 24/7.
There is a Communist subplot that, to me, was the Coen’s way of showing how ridiculous the infamous Hollywood Blacklist really was. Essentially, there are a variety of subplots that all come together to save the studio and help Mannix make his ultimate career decision. Along the way, gentle fun is poked at all the stereotypes and successful movie genres of the day, not to mention celebrity and all that goes along with it.
I can’t say if longtime Coen Brothers fans will like this movie or not. But if you’ve avoided their movies like I have, this might be the one that changes all that for you. For me, Hail, Caesar! was a wonderful, entertaining surprise I’m still enjoying days later.
Rating: 5 Stars