What I love the most about the Coen Brothers is their ability to gleefully hop and skip from one genre to the next all while delivering a certain off-kilter sensibility that permeates every one of their films. From hard-boiled dramas to Westerns, to outright comedies, the Coens have uncompromisingly done it all.
Dependably, every few years the Coen Brothers deliver a lark; a movie that is silly, fun, and exists for really no other reason other than because it can. Sometimes their larks have been masterpieces like “The Hudsucker Proxy” and (the greatest lark of them all) “The Big Lebowski.”
Most of the time, though, these larks are light and disposable; exercises in the Coens stretching their limits to see what snaps (see movies like “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “Intolerable Cruelty,” “The Ladykillers” and “Burn After Reading”). What makes these movies fun isn’t that they are all that great, it’s because the Coens have built such a solid reputation, they can get a whole stable of their famous friends to come play along.
Their latest, “Hail, Caesar!”, is yet another lark that serves as an unabashed love letter to Hollywood’s Golden Age when studios reigned supreme.
The story centers on Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a hard-nosed, executive production manager at the fictional Capitol Pictures Studios. We spend a little over a day with Eddie as he buzzes around the back lots expertly putting out fires of varying degrees.
The biggest fire involves the kidnapping of one of their most celebrated stars, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), just as he is about to finish the sword-and-sandals religious epic “Hail, Caesar!” Of course, this being a Coen Brothers movie, Baird’s kidnappers turn out to be not your average, run-of-the-mill criminals.
While the story is amusing, this whole movie exists so the Coens can uncork some old-school studio grandeur and do some things movies stopped doing well over a half-century ago. As Eddie hops from set to set, we stay and linger to see an eye-popping water ballet featuring Scarlett Johansson and a rousing song-and-dance scene (compete with taps and sailor suits!) featuring Channing Tatum.
Even though this is a movie built mainly for Coen fans and devotees of the TCM channel, “Hail, Caesar!” does feature some standout, hilarious scenes. For example, there is the roundtable Eddie hosts with a group of squabbling religious leaders brought in for their expertise. Or the conversation Eddie has with twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton). And lastly the brilliant moment when tight-lipped cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich, in a breakout performance) gets forced into the lead of a chamber piece helmed by stuffy director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).
Brolin does an excellent job of holding all the strands of this movie together. He plays his part like a film noir tough guy and his personal conflict of staying at the studio or taking a cushy job at Lockheed Martin turns out to be the heart of the film.
Clooney is also great here, playing the clueless movie star without a single hint of irony.
“Hail, Caesar!” is little more than a goof and a laugh, but who better to take you on such a low-stakes venture than the Coen Brothers? Hail, hail indeed.
“Hail, Caesar!” is rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking.