Many will dismiss Hail, Caesar! as a lesser entry in the Coen brothers' filmography, but if the cinematic siblings have made any sort of thesis through their prolific body of work, it's that no matter what appears on the surface, there is always a bigger picture. Hail, Caesar!, as small as it seems, is truly a big picture. Capitol Pictures, former employer of doomed scribe Barton Fink, exists at the intersection of faith, politics, and image - 1950s Hollywood. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin doing his best Joe Polito) is a studio 'fixer' tasked with anything and everything required to keep Capitol's many productions moving smoothly. Currently on his plate is managing the image of an unmarried-but-pregnant leading lady (Scarlett Johansson), changing the image of cowboy stunt actor, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), and obtaining feedback on the religious aspects of Capitol's upcoming crucifixion epic, Hail, Caesar! It's when the star of said epic, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, at his dopey best) goes missing, that Mannix begins to struggle. Or does he? It's tough to tell which parts of Mannix's wild day-to-day are business as usual, considering any job that has one methodically doling out scoops to competing twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton and Tilda Swinton) is likely to be a little madcap.
That's the keyword here: madcap. Narratively, Caesar! is all over the place, rarely spending too much time with one character or setting, and spending even less time questioning how each vignette fits into the larger story. Yet somehow, each piece feels essential. I've jokingly referred to the film as 'Burn After Trumbo' in reference to the setting (Trumbo) and the 'loose cogs unknowingly rattling around in a much bigger machine' format (Burn After Reading). And as all these particular cogs fall in and out of place, Eddie Mannix is the only one to question what it all means, or at the very least, ask what cause is being served (he finds himself up against a mysterious group called "The Future" - clever, Coen boys, very clever).
Roger Deakins, rock and roll cinematographer, has done some amazing work capturing the 1950s Hollywood feel, which is helped greatly by the Coen's use of old fashioned movie magic. Hail, Caesar! is shot on film, and takes place entirely on sets and sound stages, and not just by nature of the material. Even when what's on screen is not movie-within-a-movie, the Coens employ painted backdrops and sweeping crane shots. There's even a wonderfully staged synchronized swimming segment that rivals in quality the films being paid homage. And it's all actually being done. There's no trickery here as far as I can tell. As such, Hail, Caesar! is a love letter to old Hollywood that is equally effective as a send up. If there's one thing that has always stood out to me about the Coens' work, it's that they and their team seem to be enjoying themselves, and in Hail, Caesar! this sentiment is downright tangible.
I'd hate to ruin any of the film's myriad fun moments, but it wouldn't be right not to mention Channing Tatum's song and dance number. As impressive as it is funny, it's this year's Oscar Isaac/robot dance, only better. Yes, it's that good. Yet as great as it is, it's far from the film's funniest moment. A particular sequence between Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich (who, but for Brolin, steals the show) involving the phrase "would that i' twere so simple" had me gasping for air.
Through all of the silliness and technical mastery, the Coens ultimately insist upon humility. The larger forces seem invisible to those lost within the fog, but the tendrils of the universe do not discriminate in their grasp. It's how we dance though the chaotic storm of existence that defines us, and Hail, Caesar! much like all of the Coens' work, is a supremely entertaining reminder of just that.
Did I mention that the real life Eddie Mannix died of a heart attack? If any of Hail, Caesar! is true, I can see why.
Hail, Caesar! opens in Philly theaters today.