“Hail, Caesar!” dazzles, pays tribute to classic Hollywood

Charles Liu

It’s the 1950s and Hollywood is thriving, but studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) can’t decide whether to remain at the bustling Capitol Pictures film studio, or take an easier job at aerospace and defense company Lockheed Martin.  

Mannix’s typical day generally consists of handling actors, a variety of scandals and nosy tabloid reporters. Things go off the rails when Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the upcoming Biblical epic “Hail, Caesar! A Tale of Christ,” is kidnapped by The Future, a group of communist screenwriters. With Whitlock’s big speech scheduled to shoot the next day, Mannix must rescue Whitlock in time to prevent a costly production shutdown.

“Hail, Caesar!” sounds like a caper, and has been advertised as such, but the Whitlock crisis is only a part of Mannix’s story. Directors Joel and Ethan Coen are more concerned with paying tribute to, and embracing, the absurdity of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The Coen brothers devote long stretches of screen time to the many films being made at Capitol Pictures, offering glimpses into an older era of filmmaking while offering enthralling, energetic dialogue and rich characterizations.

Hick cowboy movie star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) humorously struggles to pronounce the line “Would that it were so simple?” in his first actual drama. The sailor musical “No Dames” offers homoerotic dancing and a delightful vocal performance from Channing Tatum as actor Burt Gurney. 

The film’s centerpiece is, of course, the “Hail, Caesar!” of the title. An affectionate parody of “Ben-Hur,” the movie is about Whitlock’s Roman character becoming convinced of Jesus Christ’s divinity. Besides Whitlock’s kidnapping, the tumultuous production of “Hail, Caesar!” provides a number of other memorable scenes. 

In one of them, Mannix consults a rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister and a Greek Orthodox priest about the religious accuracy of the picture. The Catholic priest declares the movie has class; the rabbi is bewildered that the priest thinks he’s a proper critic. The Orthodox priest complains the chariot race Whitlock’s character partakes in is unrealistic.

“How can he jump between the chariots moving at full speed?” he demands.

Like previous Coen Brothers films “The Big Lebowski” and “Fargo,” “Hail, Caesar!” meanders to the finish. Though Mannix solemnly contemplates his future, the rest of the film is full-on farce. Problems get solved in peculiar ways, and a certain plot thread has a ludicrously grand payoff. “Hail, Caesar!” won’t be for everyone, especially those who prefer their stories tightly woven and forwardly told. The film does lose focus midway, and it is sometimes difficult to remain invested in Mannix’s story when vastly more interesting events are occurring around him.

Brolin and Clooney are good, but they are often overshadowed by Ehrenreich’s charming turn as the deceptively dim-witted Doyle, who will draw the biggest laughs. The appearances of Tatum and Johansson, as well as other big names, including Jonah Hill, Clancy Brown, Tilda Swinton and Frances McDormand amount to brief but funny cameos. Cinematographer Roger Deakins recalls Technicolor films with his radiant, dazzling camerawork, showing off the excellent costumes and grand sets for the film itself and the films within the film. 

The most enjoyable aspect of “Hail, Caesar!” is its whimsical, lighthearted flavor. Viewers won’t find much cynicism or darkness. Everyone in the picture seems to be having fun, and their happiness is infectious. The Coen brothers don’t have time for that bothersome thing called seriousness.