Movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by a group of Communist script writers who feel they are undercompensated for their work. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) works for the studio as a “fixer” who tries to keep movie production running smoothly by taking care of any problems for the actors and directors. Mannix gets a ransom note asking for $100,000 for the return of Whitlock. Whitlock is the star of a big-budget Roman Empire film called “Hail, Caesar: The Story of the Christ” and is needed back on set as quickly as possible. He also wants to keep Whitlock’s disappearance out of the two gossip columns written by feuding twin sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton). Mannix is also dealing with the pregnancy of unwed starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), and monosyllabic cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) being shoehorned into an upscale costume drama much to the chagrin of director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). As if this wasn’t enough, Mannix is also considering a lucrative job offer from aircraft manufacturer Lockheed and is also trying to quit smoking.
Joel and Ethan Coen are the talented writers, directors, editors and producers behind some of the best movies in history (“Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Raising Arizona,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “The Big Lebowski,” “True Grit” to name a few). They have also given us some interesting films with unique characters and a skewed view of the world. These films aren’t quite great but are certainly worth a look. Where “Hail, Caesar” falls on the list from worst to first will probably require some time to decide and may depend on your mood when you see it but, for me, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of their best efforts.
Right off the bat, you know you’re watching a Coen Brothers movie. The look of the sets, the way the characters are filmed and the often amped up energy between the actors are all signatures of a Coen Brothers joint, especially one of their lighter films. Adding to the mood is the utter self-absorption of some of the movie’s characters. They cannot see past their own wants, needs and desires to consider all the trouble they are causing. They need someone like Mannix to take care of the problems they are ill equipped to handle or blindly stumble upon. The film, set in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s, gives the audience a peek behind scrubbed clean facades and into the dirty lives of Hollywood stars from the era. Reading a little of Hollywood history shows there were plenty of pregnancies, closeted gays and lesbians, and substance abuse to cover up keeping the real versions of Eddie Mannix busy. Watching the small emergencies and major catastrophes Mannix deals with fill his day made me wonder if what he does only enables the actors and directors bad decision making. Of course, the answer is “yes” since he was hired by the studio to keep the actors and directors working, on schedule and within budget.
Watching Mannix work is probably the most interesting thing about “Hail, Caesar!” making the subplot about the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock almost an afterthought. Sadly, that part of the story is written that way as well. There is a great deal of Communist ideology spewed by the group of writers holed up at a beachside bungalow. Granted, it’s all done in a friendly fashion, leading to a case of Stockholm syndrome for Whitlock. Nothing about this group is terribly interesting aside from the petty sniping between members. I suppose I expected a more aggressive gang hoping to convert Whitlock as a vocal and public advocate for their cause. Instead, Whitlock doesn’t really get it and is treated like the slow cousin at the family reunion with everyone just nodding and smiling as he tries to play along. Pretty much everything at the beach house feels like filler and tends to bring the movie to a bit of a narrative stop.
Far more entertaining are the films within the film being filmed. A water ballet featuring Johansson’s pregnant DeeAnna Moran in a mermaid costume and a big dance number with Channing Tatum’s Burt Gurney leading a group of sailors tap dancing on tables at a bar the night before they ship out contain dazzling visuals, impressive choreography and catchy tunes. I almost wish they had just made a movie that stitched these scenes together with a Hollywood backlot story about Eddie Mannix and left the Communist kidnapping plot out. Even watching Clooney chew the scenery in the sword and sandals epic his character is filming beats anything that happens after his kidnapping. It’s the dichotomy between what Hollywood is trying to sell us and what this movie is trying to show us about the real world that drags the film down a peg or two. It’s far from awful but I could have used a bit more screwball action and a lot less Communist manifesto.
“Hail, Caesar!” is rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking. The suggestive content is very mild and hardly noticeable. Smoking is common throughout the film.
One of my favorite Coen Brothers movies is “Raising Arizona.” It is goofy and sweet and features some very memorable characters. From time to time, for no reason, my wife will just suddenly announce, “Short of Edwina. Turn to the right!” which is a line Holly Hunter’s character says on her first meeting with Nic Cage. “Raising Arizona” has more memorable lines. Perhaps that’s what “Hail, Caesar!” lacks…scenes and dialog that burrow into your brain and pop up for no particular reason in conversation. While that isn’t a requirement for a great movie, it does help.