The last time Joel and Ethan Coen visited vintage Hollywood, it was the 1940s and John Turturro was the Clifford Odets-like Barton Fink (1991), who finds his talent, sanity, and very life threatened by a diabolical, soulless town and industry. The siblings’ strike a more buoyant tone with their return to Tinseltown’s Golden Age, Hail, Caesar!, set in the 1950s during the fading days of the studio era. Cheeky, exuberant, and salacious, this is a behind-the-scenes comic fable that allows the Coen Bros. to experiment with numerous styles while spinning several stories seemingly inspired by Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon or maybe a tattered, yellowing cache of Confidential magazines.
Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, guilt-ridden Catholic, head of production at Capitol Pictures, and designated company fixer when scandal rears its head. Putting out fires is what he does best and with the studio about to be consumed by flames, he is in for a busy 24 hours: Production on the titular Bible story (subtitled “A Tale of the Christ” a la Ben-Hur) screeches to a halt when leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) disappears from set. Musical stars DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) and Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) have potentially career-killing skeletons rattling around in their closets. Effete director Laurence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes) is none too happy that congenial, but dimwitted singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) has been thrust upon his sophisticated, English drawing-room romance despite the boy’s disastrous accent and inability to use his words. If that weren’t enough, a cadre of Communist writers (played by a group of ace character actors including Fisher Stevens, Patrick Fischler, David Krumholtz, and Fred Melamed) are putting the squeeze on the studio and twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) are circling like sharks sensing chum in the water.
The Coens and their cast are clearly having a blast as the brothers pay homage to a Hollywood that hasn’t existed in well over half a century, capturing the feel of a big studio’s back lot when the place was still a company town. The riffs on various genres—Biblical epic, oater, and Esther Williams-style swim spectacular, among them—are spectacular. The highlight is Tatum’s big dance number, taking the lead as one of a gang of sailors in a production number that wouldn’t be out of place in a Gene Kelly musical—well, except for the homoerotic spin on it. The Coens clearly know their classics and what makes them tick.
The acting is superb, particularly from Brolin as long-suffering master juggler Mannix; Johansson as brassy screen siren DeeAnna; Ehrenreich as sweet, thick, and sincere Hobie; and in a delicious cameo, Frances McDormand as the studio’s no-nonsense editor CC Calhoun. Production design and costuming are superb, reflecting the glamor of that bygone era. The Coens’ longtime collaborator, cinematographer Roger Deakins, is back in the fold after a nearly 10-year absence and his compositions and gorgeous lensing add yet another layer of gloss to the film.
Hail, Caesar! Is a glorious piece of work. The Coens are firing on all cylinders in their recreation of Hollywood as it never quite was. How this will play to a wide, general audience is a question—is it a little too inside baseball for its own good? But for anyone who loves classic Hollywood and those willing to follow the siblings down whatever twisted path they forge, the movie is pure delight, comic gold to brighten up a dreary winter.—Pam Grady