Let’s get one thing outta the way: Hail, Caesar! is minor Coen brothers. It is not No Country For Old Men, though if we are using that as the yardstick separate “minor” Coens from “major” Coens, then nearly every film they have made since 2007 falls into the former category. You can instead lump Hail, Caesar! in with A Serious Man and Burn After Reading, black comic farces where bad things happen to amoral people, and nobody, especially the audience, learns anything.
Hail, Caesar! is an ode to the movies themselves that snaps the despondent streak the sibling duo has been on for close to a decade. Or maybe not. You can take the Coens out of the gloom, but you can’t take the gloom out of the Coens. The more thought you apply to Hail, Caesar!‘s story developments, the more pessimistic it becomes in the rear view, but hey: at least they want to show their audiences a good time in the theater. Grant that we are in the stretch of the movie year where options are not so much slim as they are emaciated, and that by consequence even half-decent flicks will likely be worthy of your attention in the sea of garbage studios pump into theaters to recuperate from the rigors of awards campaigning. But also grant that any Coen brothers movie is a must-see for all but casual moviegoers, and that Hail, Caesar! quirks, idiosyncrasies, and unapologetic screwball velocity make it the perfect seasonal restorative for beleaguered patrons of the big screen.
If the film opened at any other time of the year, of course, it would be just as enjoyable and possibly more vital. (It doesn’t take much to impress in the doldrums of the movie release cycle, after all.) Hail, Caesar! is a “day in the life” production, or maybe “several days in the life,” because keeping track of the timeline is a tricky task when so much “stuff” that demands the bulk of our attentions occurs on that timeline; it may be more correct to just think of the film as the story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of production at a Hollywood studio and also its fixer. He’s the guy who suppresses scandal in Tinseltown, either by gently tamping it down or by manhandling it.
Hail, Caesar! follows Mannix through his days on the backlot, on the soundstage, and in his office as he goes about his work with waning relish. He meddles in the lives of movie stars (chiefly Scarlett Johansson, playing an aquatic picture starlet, and Alden Ehrenreich, a singing Western actor on the rise), fends off a nosy pair of twin sister gossip columnists (the phenomenal Tilda Swinton in a dual role), placates perfectionist artiste filmmakers (Ralph Fiennes, wryly hilarious), and tries to play father and husband from afar, all while juggling a series of botched meetings with a man from Lockheed who is courting him with an executive position in the company. The cherry on top of Eddie’s professional sundae, though, is Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the high-powered leading man of the titular movie-within-a-movie. Early on in Hail, Caesar!, Baird is kidnapped and held for ransom by a Communist cell comprised mostly of disgruntled screenwriters. Eddie, naturally, is charged with tracking the studio’s errant movie star down.
Most of Hail, Caesar! is wrapped around the search for Baird, but that is not to say the film is streamlined by any stretch of the means. In truth, the movie isn’t about Baird; it’s about Eddie, whose endlessly varied duties give the film the appearance of being scattershot. But Hail, Caesar! is all over the place only because Eddie is all over the place. Life pulls him in every possible direction. The thought of spending even an afternoon in his shoes is exhausting. His job might be exciting, but it leaves him with very little room for family, free time, or even the chance to eat a meal. When he sits down for a roast at home, warmed up by his wife (Alison Pil, always wonderful but barely seen here), he treats the moment like a rare luxury. Eddie’s very existence has been subsumed by his career. That’s one side of the coin in Hail, Caesar!‘s inside baseball scheme, the side where the grinding Hollywood machine so thoroughly tramples one’s enthusiasm for the medium that they’d almost rather work in an industry emblematized by a photo of a blooming mushroom cloud.
The other side of the coin is colored by joy to temper the film’s cynicism. Hail, Caesar! lets the Coens flex their mastery of their craft with genre; they orchestrate song and dance numbers in musicals and acrobatic action scenes in Westerns with equal dexterity, knot each of these to the movie’s central mystery yarn, and still find room for some Cold War dramatics with a running joke about the Red Scare that pays off beautifully. (If not for the fact that timing precludes the possibility, you’d swear the Coens are consciously smirking at Trumbo and its hamhanded depiction of the exact same era in Hollywood’s history.) Among all of those micro movies, there are performances to savor from just about everybody working in the biz. Figuring out who isn’t in Hail, Caesar! is probably the best way of figuring out who is; most of the film’s massive ensemble (which includes, but is not limited to, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand, Johansson, Fiennes, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Channing Tatum) show up for a scene or two and then disappear when their scope is realized.
Playing Where’s Waldo? with the film’s troupe is fun, but the Coens’ casting gives Hail, Caesar! scale and weight, and watching these people act in service to their recreation of Hollywood’s alleged Golden Age is pure delight. In pulling back the curtain on the movie business’s artifice, the Coens underscore the pleasure that we take from it, even as Mannix buries his head in the sand and trundles merrily toward an uncertain future. What is a Coen brothers film without jaded commentary? Hail, Caesar! dazzles us by distracting us from the burdens of reality, where even the local priest is short on patience for his flock. The movies don’t necessarily give us answers to our woes, but they always give us diversion, and that just might be answer enough.