Film Review – Hail, Caesar!
Hollywood’s golden era was famously controlled by giant production studios that lorded over their workers as if within fictitious fiefdoms of entertainment and prestige. Studios like MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) hired people known as fixers to maintain a positive public image of the people they employed by covering up mistakes actors made in public and behind the scenes. It was the fixers job to arrange relationships, explain lewd and publicly perceived deviant behaviors and ultimately make or break people as stars. In Hail, Caesar! the latest movie by the ever enigmatic Coen Brothers, Josh Brolin plays fixer Eddie Mannix, inspired by the actual person of the same name who worked for MGM studios as the fixer of all fixers, a manipulator and arranger of lives both public and private, fictional and real.
With Hail, Caesar!, set in the latter days of the big studio existence of the 1950s, Joel and Ethan Coen are perhaps at their most overtly metaphorical and metaphysical. Opening on the image of a crucifix, and cutting to Mannix giving confessional over smoking a cigarette against his wife’s knowledge, there’s already a sense of something more personal going on. Mannix, a fixer for Capitol Studios, is a busy man shuffling people’s lives around a larger script dictating the making of movies. When one of his biggest stars, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped off the set of one of the studio’s biggest biblical epics, Mannix has to navigate both maintaining the cover ups of Hollywood scandals while searching for Whitlock.
While a kidnapping seems like regular Coen Brothers fodder for hijinx and commentary, it’s unusually pushed as a plot device of central focus to the background of a movie that’s more about the life in microcosm of movie studios and the Jesus-like partitioning of saving movie star’s souls that Mannix doles out. Utilizing a star-studded cast of cameos and minor roles, the Coen’s are creating amalgams of real-life Hollywood stars of yesteryear into individual, almost vignette-like stories centering around the different ways Mannix must manipulate situations in order for the bigger machine to keep rolling.
This might be where the Coen’s, often known for their meticulous and insanely detailed productions, are at the most relaxed of their career so far. Scenes often playout for extended periods of time as if there’s no urgency to anything, and really, even with a kidnapping plot, their isn’t. Mannix is a professional and has things covered. This gives the movie time to leisurely watch DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) perform a song and dance in water, wearing a mermaid tale, or Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) leap from bar to stairs while also in song and dance, or highly regarded director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) attempt to teach good ol’ country boy Hobie Doyle, Alden Ehrenreich in a scene stealing performance, how to deliver lines, or even watching Hobie himself twirl a rope endlessly while waiting for an arranged date.
There is an obvious metaphoric intention going on here as the studio itself is called Capitol and the mandate of Capitol Studios is to make capital from their stock of actors who are maintained by the fixer so as they can continue to be sources of capital, etc., etc. This is emphasized even more when the kidnappers behind Whitlock’s disappearance are revealed. It may be unusual for the Coens, but that’s also part of their greater charm, they’re all about doing the unusual, surprising audiences, and rarely revisiting exactly the same ground even when replaying with the same material. At times the humor is a little too reliant upon sight gags and slapstick physicality, but then that’s a huge part of the homage the Coens are playing at by revisiting, in their own way, a time that shaped and informed so much about what people, including the Coens, love about movies. One part love letter, one part capitalist commentary and one part religious self reflection, a fact emphasized by Mannix’s moral debate of quitting his fixer job to work for weapons manufacturer Lockheed, the Coen’s clearly aren’t working with a regular narrative’s use of stakes, instead they come off more interested in expressing their enjoyment of the actual craft of it all, the making of movies, the creating of lives, all while still obsessed with the idiosyncrasies that make up those things.
The real joy here is in absorbing the hypnotic, lingering approach of the storytelling and the dedication that even the slightest role is given by the stellar cast. It might be one of the Coens most slight affairs, but whether it’s watching Clooney’s moronic Whitlock attempt to navigate philosophical discussions of economics or Tilda Swinton playing dueling twins, there’s never a moment that doesn’t seem to be having as much fun with itself as it is with the audience.