When the first official trailer for Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar! landed, it suggested that their latest movie – set in the glorious Technicolor Hollywood of the early 1950s – would be something increasingly rare for the siblings: the sort of unapologetically lighthearted goofball comedy they haven’t made since 2004’s The Ladykillers. Look! There’s George Clooney in heavy eyeliner and a toga! Scarlett Johansson with a mermaid tail! Channing Tatum tap-dancing in a sailor suit! By this point in their careers, however, the Coen brothers may be incapable of delivering anything lacking in subtext and social critique, and if we were paying attention, we were told as much in the second trailer for their deeply entertaining yet startlingly profound entertainment.
Considering they write, direct, produce, and, under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes, edit all of their movies, it’s unimaginable that the Coens don’t also have some control over the content of their trailers, and Hail, Caesar’s second one is a beaut. In it, an obviously miscast cowpoke actor (Alden Ehrenreich’s Hobie Doyle) is flailing in the filming of a tony drawing-room romance, having particular trouble with the line “Would that it were so simple.” Hoping to excise the grating drawl from the young man’s voice, the director (Ralph Fiennes’ Laurence Laurentz) attempts an elocution lesson, asking Doyle to read the line, trippingly, exactly the way he does: “Wouldthatitweresosimple.” What follows is nearly 30 seconds of verbal hysteria as the men say the line over and over – Doyle finding new ways to mangle the pronunciation, Laurentz growing increasingly impatient – until the words lose all meaning yet, ironically, you can’t get them out of your head. It’s truly the funniest preview I’ve seen in years. But it might also be the most telling, because in retrospect the trailer feels like the Coens’ warning to those expecting nothing but a brightly colored Tinseltown lark. Would that it were so simple.
In rough outline, it kind of is. Covering roughly 27 hours in the life of Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), Hail, Caesar! follows the trusted employee of Capitol Pictures as he quietly attempts to solve one crisis after another: quelling the fears of religious leaders over a biblical epic’s depiction of Jesus; finding a husband for the pregnant star (Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran) of the studio’s water ballets; keeping a long-buried scandal hidden from twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton’s Thora and Thessaly Thacker). Most critically, Mannix has to deal with the recent kidnapping of matinée idol Baird Whitlock (Clooney), being held for a $100,000 ransom by a mysterious syndicate calling itself “The Future.” That’s a lot of narrative, yet the Coens keep it all lucid and engaging. What makes their latest so thrillingly knotty, however, isn’t the plot, but rather how the plot is weaved into a far more expansive storyline involving Mannix’s search for personal and spiritual redemption. On the surface, Hail, Caesar! may resemble the Coen brothers’ pitch-black Hollywood satire Barton Fink. (In a neat Coen-world in-joke, Capitol Pictures is the same studio Barton Fink toiled for.) It’s more accurately a return to the questioning and soulful comedy of A Serious Man, albeit one that trades that film’s Old Testament wrath with New Testament hope.
The movie’s first scene finds Mannix, a devout Roman Catholic, attending confession at 4 a.m., so guilt-ridden for lying to his wife about his attempts to quit smoking (“I snuck a couple cigarettes … maybe three ...”) that he can barely contain his sobs. Yet as Hail, Caesar! progresses, this seemingly jokey intro to Mannix’s character proves to be no joke. As incarnated in Brolin’s forceful, beautifully big-hearted performance, Mannix is a truly decent man in an indecent world, and one whose means of studio problem-solving – bribes, threats, occasional slaps to the faces of Hollywood starlets and leading men alike – keep him continually wrestling with his conscience and faith. Like A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik, Eddie Mannix aches for understanding – for answers. But whereas Gopnik didn’t heed the ones he got and paid the price, Mannix learns and grows, and the Coens delineate the parallels between the man’s professional and spiritual experiences with a ticklish wit that (almost) masks how touching those parallels are. “God wants us to do what’s right,” Mannix’s priest tells him near the finale. “The inner voice that tells you what’s right – it comes from God.” For all of its inspired silliness, Hail, Caesar! also explores, with incisiveness and insight, Mannix’s struggles with hearing that voice, and determining just what it’s telling him to do. Whether the voice is God’s or the unseen studio head’s on the other end of Mannix’s tense phone calls – or whether there’s any difference – is open to debate.
What shouldn’t be, though, is just how much spectacular fun this movie is. It’s filled with the sorts of delightfully Byzantine conversations and loopy detours we’ve come to expect from the Coens’ oeuvre, and as usual it’s gorgeously photographed and scored, respectively, by the brothers’ peerless collaborators Roger Deakins and Carter Burwell. It’s also a treasure trove of familiar faces, bringing to mind the famous MGM boast of the ’40s that insisted the studio had “more stars than there are in Heaven.” They may not all be A-listers, but you won’t have any trouble recognizing, and being greatly amused by, participants including Alison Pill, Clancy Brown, David Krumholtz, Fisher Stevens, Kyle Bornheimer, Patrick Fischler, and Seinfeld’s Wayne Knight, with other big names – including Jonah Hill and a hilarious Frances McDormand – only stopping by for a quick scene before departing.
Ehrenreich, with his endearing ingenuousness and amazing lasso tricks performed with both ropes and spaghetti noodles, may be Hail, Caesar’s supporting MVP, fulfilling all the promise of his excellent turns in Beautiful Creatures and Blue Jasmine. But lord knows he has competition: Clooney, playing the most charismatic of dim bulbs; Swinton, subtly differentiating her competing Hedda Hoppers; Fiennes, the epitome of foppish superciliousness; Johansson, a honking hoot with a braying Noo Yawk accent. (A Coen-brothers veteran from 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There, Johansson is so terrific here that her contract obligation to Marvel irritates me all the more, thinking of all the wonderful film work she could be doing if she weren’t so frequently encased in Black Widow leather.)
Meanwhile, Tatum pops up for a few scenes as song-and-dance-man-with-a-