FILM REVIEW – HAIL, CAESAR!. With Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum. Written and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen. Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking. 106 minutes.
The Coen Brothers–Joel and Ethan–have created an eclectic and highly uneven body of work. A given film could be a comedy or a drama, set in the present or the past, done in black and white or color. Some are brilliant. Some are cult films. Some are just duds. You just never know what you’re getting. With HAIL, CAESAR!, they have a winner, having created a delightfully daffy pastiche of early 1950s Hollywood as we follow executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) through a day of crises.
For film buffs, the joke starts with his name since the real Mannix was an executive at MGM, Here he’s the head of production at the fictional Capitol Pictures where he has to decide whether this is his life or whether he should take an offer to leave Hollywood for a lucrative position at Lockheed. Among the things he has to deal with is that Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the “Ben Hur”-like movie in production, has been kidnapped. DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), who does Esther Williams-like musicals, is about to give birth out of wedlock. He’s just been ordered to cast Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a drawling cowboy star, in a sophisticated comedy. And twin sister–and competing–gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton) are threatening to run a scandalous story about one of Capitol’s top directors (Ralph Fiennes) and stars.
You would think Mannix would be running screaming towards a saner job, but the real joke of the movie is that he’s good at what he does, and doesn’t lose his head no matter how bizarre things get. This being a Coen Brothers movie, things do get strange, from homoerotic musical numbers to Communist conspiracies to a fixer (Jonah Hill) willing to do whatever it takes to coverup Hollywood’s messes. Along the way we get to see scenes from the various movies in production that show a real knowledge of the Hollywood of that era.
This is a largely an ensemble film with many of the performers just in for a few scenes. The weight is on Brolin and he’s terrific in playing the studio executive as a surprisingly sympathetic character. Other performers get little more than cameos. Frances McDormand plays a chain smoking film editor in one scene to good effect. Robert Picardo is a hoot as a rabbi at a meeting of Christian clergy vetting the script for “Hail, Caesar!” Of the main players, there’s not a wrong move from Channing Tatum’s Gene Kelly-like dancer with a secret, to Johansson’s jaded “innocent” swimming star, to Clooney’s kidnap victim who starts to learn about capitalism from his captors.
“Hail, Caesar!” is a goofy romp that’s like watching Turner Classic Movies while under the influence. Everything is recognizable but slightly askew, so that Brolin’s Mannix is the voice of sanity and reason by default. Given what passes for comedies these days, having something that’s simultaneously as sophisticated and silly as this is a real treat.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.