Set at a fictional studio in 1950s Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! is many things: a rip-roaring ode to old-fashioned entertainment (dancing, swimming, lassoing and the like); a silly farce peppered with wordplay, innuendo and wit; and a chronicle of spiritual crisis, in which one man tries to find his ultimate purpose. But mostly Hail, Caesar! is a creative clarion call to celebrate the way cinema can be all of these things, sometimes even at once. This is the Coens’ Sullivan’s Travels, a meta comedy that wants to deflate the pretensions of Hollywood even as it’s giving the movies themselves a giant hug. As such, it might just be their magnum opus.
The man in crisis is Eddie Mannix (a sneakily funny Josh Brolin), “head of physical production” at Capitol Pictures. For the most part Eddie is a troubleshooter, the man between the studio executives writing the checks and the creative types on the sets. He does whatever is necessary to make sure the dream factory’s conveyor belts stay on track, from encouraging illegitimately pregnant bathing beauty DeeAnna Morgan (Scarlett Johansson) that she should get married to convincing snooty director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) that he should make room in his high-society drama for up-and-coming cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich). Eddie puts up with long hours and exasperating personalities, but if he’s hesitant about accepting a lucrative job offer from Lockheed, whose corporate recruiter tries to woo him by bragging about their part in the H-bomb tests at Bikini Atoll, it’s because Eddie believes in the movies themselves. Or, as he says, “the picture has worth.” And there are moments – including a sequence in an editing suite, where Eddie watches as star power, cinematography and deft editing combine to make a half second of magic – when his faith is rewarded.
Eddie’s troubles mount, however, when Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a massive star and the anchor of Capitol’s prestige picture Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, is kidnapped from the set. Used to dealing with sex scandals and alcoholic benders, Eddie now finds himself mixed up in something uniquely sinister (and possibly Soviet). A plot is underway, in fact, that threatens to undermine the entire system which allows the Hollywood dream factory to run.
Perhaps there’s nothing greater in cinema than a tap dance on a tabletop that doesn’t miss a step.
As you can see, there are a lot of moving parts here — which is par for the course for the Coens. Recall that their great film noir homage, The Man Who Wasn’t There, also improbably involved aliens. Yet Hail, Caesar! moves so briskly, with laughs tucked into every corner, that there’s no need to go exploring down every rabbit hole; the simple surface experience of it is a sheer delight. We get glimpses of at least four Capitol projects in mid-production, including that Esther Williams-style swimstravaganza with Johansson and a gleefully homoerotic sailor musical featuring a twirling, tap-dancing Channing Tatum. (I’d pay good money to see full versions of both of these.) Meanwhile, the behind-the-scenes sequences wring countless laughs from the absurdities of moviemaking. One of these involves a comically circular consultation session with various religious leaders about the portrayal of Jesus in Hail, Caesar! (“Does the depiction of Christ Jesus cut the mustard?” Eddie impatiently demands.) Another is an extended, “Who’s-on-first”-style vocal coaching session between Fiennes’ effete director and Ehrenreich’s hopelessly drawling cowboy. (“Would that it were so simple,” indeed.)
Fiennes is a stitch, as is Clooney playing an even dimmer bulb than he did in the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, yet it’s the relatively unknown Ehrenreich who runs away with the movie. His impossibly and unwittingly debonair Hobie Doyle is a greenhorn who has arrived in Hollywood with a polite willingness, a decent singing voice and a big hat. It will take just a nudge from Eddie to make him a star. There’s a wonderfully sweet moment in which Hobie arrives to pick up a starlet for a studio-arranged date and they guilelessly compare tricks, he with his lasso and she, in the tradition of Carmen Miranda, by balancing objects on her head. They’re just two innocent entertainers amusing each other with their gifts, and the movie seems to suggest that art doesn’t have to be much more than this.
Eddie instinctively understands this as well. His inner struggle – undergone while kidnapping Commies threaten him on one side and H-bombing capitalists woo him on the other – represents the tension between divisive ideology and relentless entertainment, between rigid ideals and ruthless commerce. The movies involve all of those things, of course, but Hail, Caesar! suggests that perhaps they’re at their best when they manage to elude such concerns and achieve a simpler, purer state of being. Perhaps there’s nothing greater in cinema than a tap dance on a tabletop that doesn’t miss a step or a camera capturing an actor at the precise moment that he finally, perfectly nails his line. If that’s the case, then Hail, Caesar! is chock full of such minor artistic triumphs. As Eddie would say, “The picture has worth.”