Hail, Caesar! Film Review
The Coen brothers deliver a gorgeously crafted romp through vintage Hollywood in this droll and ruminative entertainment.
If there’s such a thing as poker-faced exuberance, you can feel it in every loving, teasing frame of Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Hail, Caesar!,” an inside-showbiz lark that regards the 1950s studio system with the utmost skepticism even as it becomes an expression of movie love at its purest. Starring Josh Brolin as a hard-working industry “fixer” tasked with keeping big-budget productions on track and wayward stars in line, this gorgeously crafted romp through the backlots and Malibu enclaves of Hollywood’s Golden Age tosses off plenty of eccentric comedy and musical razzle-dazzle before taking on richer, more ruminative dimensions, ultimately landing on the funny-sad question of whether life is but a dream factory. Although it boasts enough marquee names and splashy, crowdpleasing angles to deliver good returns for Universal, this is as strange and singular an offering as anything the Coens have ever done, and as such its more thoughtful, elusive undertones could stand in the way of broader public acceptance. It bows Feb. 5 Stateside, a week before premiering overseas as the Berlin Film Festival’s opening-night attraction.
The high-powered Hollywood fixer has been enjoying an on-screen mini-renaissance, on the evidence of Showtime’s Liev Schreiber-starring “Ray Donovan” and now the Coen brothers’ lavish throwback to an earlier era of industry damage control, as overseen here by the character of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a fictionalized composite of the real-life studio VP Mannix and his head of publicity, Howard Strickling. The various scandals that Mannix and Strickling covered up during their decades working together at MGM could easily furnish several films of their own, but the Coens generally steer clear of salaciousness in favor of a jaundiced but affectionate character study, treating Brolin’s eternally put-upon Eddie as a beacon of relative sanity and intelligence in a world overrun by irrationality, venality and corruption.
Indeed, had the Coens not already made a film called “A Serious Man,” neither the title nor the theological baggage would have been misapplied to this version of Eddie, a hard-working Catholic family man first seen unburdening his soul to a priest, and not just because he’s sneaked a few cigarettes behind his wife’s back. It’s the ’50s, and as the designated fixer for Capitol Pictures (played here in a sly amalgam of the Universal, Warner Bros., Paramount and Sony lots, plus the courtyard of Los Angeles’ Union Station), Eddie is tasked with preserving the illusion of Hollywood glamour and propriety at a time of pervasive moral crackdown and sociopolitical upheaval, taking not-always-savory steps to ensure that production runs smoothly and top talents stay out of the headlines.
If nothing else, the Coen brothers have employed their gifts for satire and pastiche to concoct a vastly wittier, more knowing and entertaining evocation of HUAC-era Hollywood than the recent “Trumbo” — a connection driven home when Baird awakens in Malibu to find he’s been kidnapped by a cabal of disgruntled screenwriters, who have joined the Communist Party to protest “the pure instrument of capitalism” that studios like Capitol (aha!) have become. Unsurprisingly, the Coens treat this self-righteous statement of principle as an opportunity for ridicule. Basically presented as a series of belligerent reaction shots, these socialist scribes (played by actors including Fisher Stevens, Patrick Fischler, David Krumholtz and Fred Melamed) may well pride themselves on sticking up “for the little guy,” but the film has no interest in exalting their politics, much less their benighted profession.
Their craft seemingly honed to an even sharper point of perfectionism and clarity than usual, the Coens delight in laying bare the nuts and bolts of the process, whether they’re steering us through the gloriously artificial sets used on Baird’s Roman epic (built and shot entirely in L.A., as was the custom of the times), or granting us a peek at the film reels running through the old-school Moviola operated by editor C.C. Calhoun (Frances McDormand, getting in a terrific gag in a one-scene role). But the most sublime moments in “Hail, Caesar!” occur when the behind-the-scenes machinery drops away, the films being produced become the film we’re watching, and we’re invited to lose ourselves in a state of vintage Hollywood rapture.
In one amusing early scene, Eddie consults an Eastern Orthodox clergyman, a Catholic priest, a Protestant pastor and a Jewish rabbi to discuss the religious content of Baird’s Roman epic; the ensuing discussion pokes deft fun at the petty sectarianism of organized religion, and the ease with which it can be pounded and churned into big-screen kitsch. But there’s no denying the power of said kitsch in the studio’s climactic re-creation of Calvary, complete with stirring music and soaring speeches, turning “Hail, Caesar!” into a rousing new testament to that old-time religion known as the movies.