As a comedy about early 1950s Hollywood, the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! has trouble achieving lift-off, and even then can barely manage to stay airborne much longer than Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose. But simultaneously hidden in plain sight is a very different film, the story of a notorious real-life big studio fixer, Eddie Mannix, recast here as a secular saint who does nothing but good for the many and diverse people he must tend to in the course of his demanding job. In short, the Coens work in mysterious ways in this odd piece, one that offers just intermittent pleasures and may be most fruitfully considered alongside one of the brothers’ most resonant creations, A Serious Man; this is a portrait of a righteous man in a morals-free zone. Despite the starry cast, this knuckle curveball likely will result in a commercial pop-up.
The film’s religious orientation is set up by the framing device of the tough, middle-aged Mannix (Josh Brolin) in confession, a daily event at which the worst he can come up with is that he snuck a few cigarettes even though he’s trying to quit (the annoyed priest even complains that he comes in too often for the little he has to confess). The context is further cemented by the fact that Capitol Pictures’ big production of the moment is Hail, Caesar!, subtitled A Tale of the Christ (as was Ben-Hur) and toplining the studio’s biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), as a Roman aristocrat who comes around to believing in the crucified Jewish preacher, a la The Robe.
Middling Coen brothers.
As this is ostensibly a comedy, the Coens’ original screenplay begins layering in the innumerable daily crises Mannix must deal with, mostly stemming from self-involved actors not known for their I.Q.s who have a remarkable knack for getting themselves into tight spots from which only Mannix can extricate them. The man’s day begins at 5 a.m. and never lets up, his labors facilitated by an exceptionally organized secretary and his own resourcefulness and imagination; he is entirely sincere and always places the needs of others and the studio before his own.
Right off the bat, it’s clear that from a comedy perspective, something’s misfiring; the confession opening isn’t funny, the Roman saga feels a little off and Mannix is an entirely serious guy. Even a scene in which he solicits script comments from religious leaders of every faith about Hail, Caesar! isn’t terribly humorous.
Things pick up a bit with a re-creation of an Esther Williams-style water ballet featuring none other than Scarlett Johansson, who talks like a sailor with a New York accent and seems never to be without a sex scandal; the latest is akin to the old “Loretta Young problem,” something Mannix puts legal wiz Joe Silverman (Jonah Hill) to work on.
Then there’s the dilemma faced by director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), a specialist in sophisticated drawing room drama who’s suddenly saddled with teaching rope-twirling cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) how to make refined dialogue effortlessly trip off his tongue as if he’d lived in Mayfair all his life.
But Mannix’s biggest problem is that Baird Whitlock has vanished, having passed out after drinking something on the set. In the event, Baird has been kidnapped by Hollywood communists. These rich old writers hold their captive at a grand Malibu beach house that looks like it could occupy a site adjacent to where Tony Stark will one day build a far more opulent dwelling. But as they await a $100,000 ransom payment, the salon Marxists try to get Baird to embrace their line of thinking; hell, they even have Herbert Marcuse there with them to lend their “study group” additional gravitas.
Meanwhile, the sun never sets on Eddie Mannix’s tasks. In one of their slyest strokes, the Coens have cast Tilda Swinton as identical twin gossip columnists who hate each other and are always vying for the same dirt; Eddie manipulates them both like marionettes. Charming Hobie goes on an arranged date to a premiere of his latest film with starlet Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio), which sets one of the gossip twins abuzz. All the while, Mannix must make an overnight decision whether or not to accept a much more lucrative offer to quit the movie business and join Lockheed, which would give him regular hours and allow him to be home with his family for dinner every night.
Out of left (or perhaps right, under the circumstances) field comes the film’s dazzling highlight, a sailor-themed dance number starring Channing Tatum. A thrill and a delight, the sequence would have been right at home in an Arthur Freed/Vincente Minnelli musical of the time and demonstrates that Tatum could have been a star in the old Hollywood just as he is in the new.
When all is said and done, Mannix does the right thing in every circumstance, orchestrating what in Hollywood terms was always considered a happy ending. Sometimes it just requires persuasiveness and common sense, at other times some strong-arming. But in religious terms, Mannix is a wise man among fools, opportunists and the misguided — a man who makes a difference in the world while making his daily appointed rounds. What would the real Eddie Mannix have thought of such a depiction of himself?
The Coens’ reimagining of a real Hollywood tough guy is interesting for insiders, but in their first order of business, that of making a rousing comedy about the Hollywood of 65 years ago, they’ve fallen rather short. There is amusement to be had, engaging actors to admire and beautiful craftsmanship to behold, but the entertainment quotient is below their usual standard when it comes to the films they target for a mass audience, of which this is one.
Brolin strides through it all like a Hollywood tough guy with a heart of gold, ever-vigilant of those he must protect, selfless and always ready with a solution. The Coens like to use Clooney in doofus roles and so it is here, the actor playing another actor who wouldn’t know a commie from a capitalist. Fiennes has fun with his exasperation over an insurmountable directorial challenge, as does Swinton playing the two imperious gossip queens for the price of one.
The most pleasant surprise is Ehrenreich, who invests his simple sagebrush star with genuine charm and pulls off some very smooth rope moves. But probably the funniest moment belongs to Frances McDormand as the studio’s chain-smoking chief film cutter (no doubt based on MGM’s legendary Margaret Booth), whose relationship with her Moviola becomes altogether too close for comfort.
As always with the Coens, the film looks impeccable. Employing several Hollywood backlots to evoke the moment when the Old Hollywood was just beginning to show its age (the film is specifically set in 1951), the directors and their ace team of production designer Jess Gonchor, cinematographer Roger Deakins (shooting on film) and costume designer Mary Zophres show their customary flair and have fun decking out the varied assortment of films being shot by Capitol at a given moment (although the aspect ratios of them curiously vary).
Opens: Friday (Universal)
Production: Working Title, Mike Zoss Productions
Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Veronica Osorio, Heather Goldenhersh, Alison Pill
Directors-screenwriters: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Rellner, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Executive producer: Robert Graf
Director of photography: Roger Deakins
Production designer: Jess Gonchor
Costume designer: Mary Zophres
Editor: Rodrick Jaynes
Music: Carter Burwell
Casting: Ellen Chenoweth
Rated PG-13, 107 minutes