Hollywood of the 1950s was in the final years of what is often referred to as the Golden Age of Hollywood. Movies were incredibly popular and the only place to see them was in the movie theater. While the 60s is the decade known for radical societal change and upheaval in America, the 50s are viewed as a quainter, simpler period. Despite this perception, the decade saw its share of change as well, as at the end of the 40s soldiers returned home from war and settled back into life. As the Cold War settled in, the red scare took hold in Washington and soon after in Hollywood. The TV would come to be a fixture in the average American home as well, threatening the status quo of Hollywood studios. Hollywood was about to transition into a very different age. In a lot of ways, it feels like an in-between period, with one foot in the past and one in the future. The early 1950s is where we find the Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film, Hail, Caesar!, a loving nod to the big studio days of old Hollywood.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a Hollywood “fixer,” someone who keeps the salacious details of the studio and the actors’ lives out of the public eye. The film loosely follows his unique day of having to put out several fires that arise for the studio: the abduction of feature film star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the studio boss in New York pressuring him to put singing Western up-and-comer Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in a period drama directed by Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), and find a solution concerning the pregnancy of unwed actress DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson). Snooping around for the latest gossip news are rival columnists, twin sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton, in a dual role), pressing Eddie on a previous, unconfirmed Baird Whitlock story. On top of all of this, Eddie is being courted by Lockheed to leave the studio and take a better paying PR job with them.
There are a lot of moving parts to this film, something most Coen brothers films share, and they don’t all balance as well or tie together as neatly as they do in some of their best work. Still, the film is a lot of fun, and features some of the funniest moments in a Coen brothers film since The Big Lebowski. The best scene of the film involves Hobie’s first moments on set of the Laurentz’s period drama, from how he walks like a cowboy entering the scene, to being unable to properly say his dialogue (“Would that it were so simple” is an instant Coens classic scene), to the wonderful back and forth between an increasingly impatient Laurentz and the unsure Hobie over said dialogue.
Ehrenreich’s Hobie Doyle is a surprise highlight of the film, a relative unknown in a sea of established stars who pepper this film from big parts to small cameos. Hobie is an actor who is not really capable of actually acting, but is foisted upon acclaimed studio director Laurence Laurentz. He has become a western star on the back of his singing and his actual rodeo skills, rarely needing to say much more than words in a song and whistling and calling for his horse. And yet Hobie shows that there may be more to him than what is shown on screen. When confronted with the information from Eddie that Baird Whitlock has been kidnapped for ransom, Hobie proves insightful, suggesting that Eddie look into the extras on set during Baird’s abduction, because they come and go while you mostly know who everyone else is.
Baird Whitlock, the Hollywood star at the center of the kidnapping that takes up so much of Eddie’s attention, is another performance of his in a Coen brothers film that is a numbskull of a character, following in the footsteps of his characters in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty. Baird is a star, possibly with some skeletons in his closet that the Thacker sisters are snooping around on, and is easily persuaded to the side of his abductors, who turn out to have Soviet and Communist leanings as well as ties to Hollywood. Of course, all of their talk about the “body politic” and the “means of production” and dialectics is only internalized by Baird as it relates to his interactions with other actors and the movie industry. Having been told by the group that kidnapped him, The Future, that they are a study group when he awakens and stumbles into their meeting, he takes them at face value and is completely oblivious to the fact that he is talking about Communism with them.
The third issue that Eddie is dealing with involves Scarlett Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran and her reputation, which would take a huge hit if word got out about her pregnancy out of wedlock, and hurt the studio as well. Despite her pristine image in the papers, she is a bit of a handful to handle behind the scenes in the few brief scenes we get with her. Her story is given the shortest screen time, treated almost like a C-plot in a TV sitcom, but gives us a wonderful cameo by Jonah Hill as a “professional person,” essentially a studio fall guy whenever there is an incident where they need a person other than the actor involved.
The totality of Eddie’s is essentially a giant juggling act. Movies themselves are juggling act of every aspect involved in making a picture, and Eddie is overseeing several all at once. Through his eyes, we get a glimpse into the magic behind the studio. We dip in on several productions, mainly the sword & sandal Christ epic that Baird Whitlock is working on, but several others, including westerns, a high society period drama, an aquatic dance musical, and a sailor comedy starring a Gene-Kelly-like actor in Burt Gurney (portrayed by Channing Tatum), that has strong homoerotic undertones. Gurney ends up tied back into one of the other storylines.
With all of these productions we get to see unbroken, extended glimpses into the productions, and in Tatum’s case it is an extended tap dance sequence that is quite delightful. We even get a glimpse into the editing process, which features a great little appearance from Frances McDormand. All of these productions show the magic of films, but also give a good natured ribbing to Hollywood and shows that even in the closing moments of the film, when something is truly turning into an awe-inspiring moment of acting that is making everyone on the set take notice and stop what they are doing, it’s undercut by the reminder that you should never take movies too seriously.
Despite the breakout performance of Ehrenreich and Clooney’s loveable goofball, Brolin’s Eddie Mannix is the key to it all; it’s his film. He is having a crisis of faith in being wooed by Lockheed away from the studio, which is mirrored by his frequent trips to confession as a devout Catholic. He is looking for a reason to continue to be doing what he is doing rather than moving on to a better paying job; his heart seems to say stay while his brain says leave. The glimpses of the life on the studio lot seem to hint that despite whatever the future may hold for the studio machine in the coming years, it will always need guys like Eddie to act as a ballast to the wild, unpredictable artists involved in making movies. One of my favorite podcasts, Filmspotting, recently reviewed Hail, Caesar!, and one of the hosts said that Eddie was a Christ figure taking on the sins of the studio. It’s is a very astute observation. Left to their own devices, people like Baird Whitlock, DeeAnna Moran, Hobie Doyle, and others would be lost. They are his sheep, he is their shepherd.
There are a lot of other smaller elements that make Hail, Caesar! a joy to watch, including the amazing assembly of “That Guy” actors involved in the movie. Initially, I had ranked this film toward the bottom of the Coen brothers’ filmography for me, but as it has sat with me for a few days, it has grown on me. This is usually the case with most of their films that I don’t initially love. They usually improve on a second viewing. Even now, while I’d still place it in the bottom half of their body of work, it’s near the top of that bottom half for me, which is no small thing considering they’ve made 17 films and only one real clunker in my estimation (The Ladykillers). I have little doubt that when I revisit Hail, Caesar down the road I will appreciate it even more.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars