In 1951, movies are huge. Their stars are big. Their colors are bright, if not garish. Television has not yet become a national obsession. In Los Angeles, Capitol Studios fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) loves his job even if his days and nights are spent putting out fires.
In Hail, Caesar!, the Coen brothers sprinkle their new film with fully realized scenes like those that electrified the movies Hollywood made in the postwar, pre-TV era. It’s a trick comparable to the addition of compelling music performances to brighten up a melancholy story in their most recent film, 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis. Music also spiced up their 2000 release Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? It worked then and it works now.
Among the films in production at Capital in the day-and-a-half that Hail, Caesar! takes place is a film called “Hail, Caesar” starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Whitlock is kidnapped after a spiked drink he chugs in a scene knocks him unconscious. A missing star is just one of Mannix’s problems.
DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johanssen) stars in a swimming pool scene that recalls Esther Williams movies. Mannix works to make sure news of Moran’s out-of-wedlock child is kept quiet.
Director Laurence Larentz (Ralph Fiennes) pouts when Mannix forces him to cast handsome young cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in a sophisticated society film.
When Mannix seeks approval from a panel of clergymen for the script for “Hail, Caesar” and its depiction of Christ, they protest.
Twin sister gossip columnists (and bitter rivals) Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) threaten to write stories damaging to Mannix’s stars.
When Mannix drops in on an editor (Frances McDormand) and asks her to show him some footage, she nearly chokes when her scarf gets caught in the film.
A cushy job offer Mannix receives from Lockheed presents a chance to move into a more stable industry and spend more time with his family. Will he take it?
Among the film’s best scenes is a dance number featuring Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), channeling Gene Kelly. Gurney sings and he and three other guys dance on tabletops. They lament that where they’re going there will be no dames. Near the end of the scene, the performance takes an unexpected turn.
Another features Mannix setting Whitlock straight with a bit of physical discipline.
Hail, Caesar! is a movie I enjoy greatly. The Coen brothers present a whacked-out story with damaged characters and several juicy 50s-era “movie within a movie” scenes. Brolin is excellent. Clooney gets to indulge in some ridiculous overacting. And Swinton continues to be one of the most versatile actors around.
As can be said about almost any Coens film, Hail, Caesar! may not be everybody’s cup of tea. You may walk out muttering WTFs. But you may also be delighted. It’s worth a shot.