A kick for those who’ve distractedly thumbed through Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon, Joel and Ethan Coen’s bustling comedy Hail, Caesar! looks back to the waning days of moviedom’s golden age: specifically, to 1951, when big-studio fixers were still tidying up the messes left by the talent (scrubbing now done by publicists and lawyers). As we’d expect, the Coens’ remembrance of this bygone era is mordant, though not as pleasingly salacious as Anger’s enduring compendium of Tinseltown scandal. But the brothers’ latest also has a certain buoyancy — a quality rarely associated with their films, especially the bleak Barton Fink (1991), their first treatment of studio-system Hollywood and its pathologies. The fizziness, though, proves fleeting, and Hail, Caesar! too often goes flat.
The central character, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), is named after the outsize, real-life MGM executive who was tasked with keeping the stars of that blue-chip studio out of the gossip magazines. (He remained employed there until his death in 1963.) The Coens’ Mannix has the official title “Head of Physical Production” at the fictional Capitol Pictures — the same outfit that employs the blocked writer in Barton Fink. But he shares the actual one’s religious faith: The frequency of Mannix’s visits to the confessional becomes one of the film’s running jokes. The sins he admits to — sneaking a couple of cigarettes, striking a movie star in anger — suggest just how far removed from the historical record Brolin’s character really is. The real Mannix was suspected of, among other grave charges, plotting to murder actor George Reeves, a sordid tale recounted in 2006's dim-witted Hollywoodland, featuring Bob Hoskins as the legendary clean-up man.
In Hail, Caesar!, Mannix emerges from church hours before sunrise, cleansing his soul before his first workday appointment, a 5 AM visit to the bungalow of a rising starlet posing for a sweaty photographer; he arrives just minutes before the cops do, called out to investigate a “possible French-postcard situation.” It’s a great line, one that shows off the filmmakers’ ear for era- and milieu-specific language — a consistent pleasure in their movies, even for a Coen agnostic. (Precision also marks the work of two regular Coen collaborators here: cinematographer Roger Deakins and costume designer Mary Zophres.)
On the Capitol lot, Mannix watches rushes of Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, a bloated biblical epic starring the studio’s top box-office draw, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a nitwit who is roofied on set by a pair of toga-clad extras working on behalf of a Communist cell. The movie idol is held for ransom at a Malibu lair, where a cabal of tweedy Red screenwriters offer him finger sandwiches and quickly convince him of the nobility of their cause (“Of course I’m for the little guy!”).
Baird’s easy indoctrination — and Mannix’s efforts to secure the $100,000 for the actor’s release — provides the main storyline into which the Coens braid multiple subplots, some more successful than others. These ancillary scenarios revolve around other Capitol titles in production, many rapidly heading toward disaster. Knocked up and unwed, aqua-musical star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is having trouble fitting into her mermaid costume, her predicament made funnier by Johansson’s sharp tough-broad interpretation. “Pretty boys — saps and swishes,” DeeAnna snaps at Mannix, dismissing the previous suitors and husbands he’s quickly had to find for her; Johansson delivers her lines with impeccable Brooklyn–transplant hauteur.
That verve is missing in too many other scenes, namely one that features singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) massacring his opening line in a drawing-room comedy helmed by the effete Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). Repeated three times too many, the wan gag also highlights a rare instance of the otherwise period-detail-obsessive directors being sloppy with their time frame: The film that Laurentz is directing, Merrily We Dance, is emblematic of a genre that had its greatest popularity in the 1930s, not the early '50s. Just as tiresome is Mannix’s meeting with a quartet of religious leaders who have been asked to endorse Hail, Caesar! and thus guarantee its triumph at the box office; the setup ensures the inevitable appearance of the filmmakers’ favorite cliché, the tetchy Jew.
But something that I’d never expected to see in a Coen brothers movie — a song-and-dance number — is here staged with tremendous brio and cheeky wit. In a clear reference to On the Town, MGM’s soaring 1949 musical, a group of tap-dancing seamen in snug-fitting Navy whites start to croon “No Dames” led by Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum, perfectly cast), Capitol’s most athletic hoofer. The tune, which starts out as a paean to the opposite sex, ends up with the dancers in the kinds of homoerotic positions that Tom of Finland would immortalize about a decade later. This affectionate sendup is one of a few instances when the Coens’ film foregrounds Hollywood’s lavender shadow history, also evinced as Baird regales one of his Marx-reading, pipe-smoking captors with a shaggy-dog story about shaving Danny Kaye’s back. Like the best moments of Hail, Caesar!, these scenes nimbly expose the dream machine’s hypocrisies, while the worst rely on humor already stale by the time of the first HUAC hearing.