Lately, it seems like Hollywood has been in love with itself, and by that I mean there's been a small pop of properties that have been rooted firmly in that time: Trumbo, [Marvel's Agent Carter](tag:1119765), etc. As a Cohen brothers movie, [Hail, Caesar!](tag:1199743) was not one of their strongest - narratively, it's a mess. But as a love letter to the business of making movies and the golden age of Hollywood, it was note perfect.
Joel and Ethan Coen have traditionally not been altogether too kind about the movie industry, but Hail, Caesar! is the opposite side of the coin to 1991's Barton Fink. This is a sleazy, shady industry at times, but there's also real magic and joy here, too.
Though the story is only loosely connected, Josh Brolin is the thread that holds it all together as Eddie Mannix, the "fixer" for a major film studio (and an actual historical figure in Hollywood). As the fixer, it's his job to put out fires when they arise, and the entire film revolves around him juggling multiple potential disasters and solving problems. Meanwhile, his job is made more difficult by the fact he's being hounded by the press in the form of twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), an amalgam of the real-life Hedda Hopper and twins Esther Friedman and Pauline Phillips.
Those problems include finding wayward starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) a husband before her out-of-wedlock pregnancy starts to show and dealing with the irate Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), a dramatic director who is irate that stunt rider and western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) has been thrown into the starring role of his dramatic picture. It's a testament to relative newcomer Ehrenreich's performance that he very nearly manages to steal the movie from everyone, including Brolin himself.
But the biggest problem that Mannix faces is locating his lost star, Baird Whitlock (a winningly daffy George Clooney), who has been kidnapped and held for ransom the day before he's scheduled to shoot the final, pivotal scene of the studio's massively expensive prestige picture. The group refers to itself only as The Future, and while Whitlock is completely clueless as to their motivation in kidnapping him, Mannix is not, and sets about trying to recover his abducted star before the press is any the wiser. Meanwhile, he's trying to quit smoking, find time for his family, get to confession once a day, and contemplate a potentially life-changing job offer from Lockheed Corporation.
Mannix runs from set to home to office trying to stem the rising flood waters as best he can, even making a point to stop in and check on the big ensemble musical number currently being filmed with song-and-dance man Burt Gurney, played to perfection by Channing Tatum, who has become the Swiss army knife of actors. His tap-dancing, table-sliding showstopper is truly impressive, one of the highlights of the film.
As mentioned above, the plot is a mess, narratively. Each individual story is so immersed in recreating its specific genre that they feel disjointed, less like a coherent story and more like an anthology. It may very well turn off a broader audience that goes to the movie expecting to see a big ensemble cast of famous faces working closely together. But each scene is so well done that it almost doesn't matter; each gives you a snapshot of that particular piece of old Hollywood at the time. A standing ovation (as always) to cinematographer Roger Deakins, who really pulled out all the stops here in adjusting his style to the specifics of each genre throughout the movie. Visually, it is beautiful and, at times, even stunning.
That's not to say the Coens turn a blind eye to the ridiculous unreality of the movie industry. The stars, with the exception of the savvy Mannix and Doyle, whom Ehrenreich plays with an endearing earnestness, are all mostly pampered idiots. The satire gently mocks the silly side of Hollywood and how it commoditizes stories. The actual business of making a movie is largely unglamorous, and the Coens have fun playing this up.
But despite the farce, just as Mannix realizes just how very much he truly loves the movie business, the Coens remind us why they - and we - do, too. The story may not make much sense, but everyone is having so much fun diving into the joyful tribute to Hollywood that you as the viewer get sucked in right along with them. A testament to how lovingly crafted their ode was: After leaving the screening last night, I was driving down the 101 through Hollywood when I saw the sign of the historic Roosevelt Hotel in the distance and suddenly thought to myself, Damn, I love this town.