Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the head of Capitol Studios, he’s also the studio’s chief fixer. Deanna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) has a child out of wedlock and Eddie has to find a solution for her. Superstar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is set to star in the biblical epic Hail, Caesar, when he is kidnapped by two extras (Wayne Knight, Jeff Lewis) for a 100,000 dollar ransom. To complicate matters, Eddie is being offered a job by an aeronautics executive. Meanwhile, cowboy crooner Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is starring in famed director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) new sophisticated romance, the problem is Hobie can’t act. Can Eddie find Baird before gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) write a tell-all story on Baird? Can he fix Deanna’s single motherhood issue? Can Eddie get Baird back in time to finish Hail, Caesar? Will Eddie quit Hollywood altogether and join the aeronautics firm?
Hail, Caesar! is obviously a satire of Ben Hur and Spartacus, but the Coen brothers are not content to showcase one movie, so they attempt to glamorize an entire era of films, the singing cowboy movies of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, the seafaring musicals of Gene Kelly, the aquatic films of Esther Williams, the choreography of Busby Berkely, and the films of Latin star Carmen Miranda. There is also some subtext of the Hollywood blacklisting scandal and a Hedda Hopper type gossip columnist roaming around. It also tries to echo the outlandish screwball comedies of the 1930’s and 40’s. In order to create these vignettes and characters, the main story gets diluted and loses its cohesiveness, and the resolution to all the questions seems like an afterthought. At times the humor was too broad as well, more like David and Jerry Zucker than the Coen brothers. I expected a little more sophistication here. It helps that I’ve seen most of these classic movies, if a viewer hasn’t seen those films, they may be lost.
The acting is very good in this film. Josh Brolin is as good as I’ve seen him in anything, he plays a very serious straight man in the middle of two or three different disasters, all of which he’s trying to keep off the pages of the gossip columns. I’m not a big fan of George Clooney, but he hams it up pretty well here and does a good job as a larger than life Charlton Heston type actor. There’s something about the Coen brothers that brings out the best in Clooney, he was also very good in O Brother Where Art Thou, as a small time con-man with a big-time ego. Scarlett Johannsson is very funny playing a tough-talking swimmer with a baby. I’ve never seen her take on such a broadly comic role and she was good at it. I wish she had a bigger role. Ralph Fiennes was funny as the exasperated arthouse director trying to teach the singing cowboy how to act. Tilda Swinton is quite good as the devilish Thora and Thessaly, competing with each other and threating Eddie by exposing a major scandal. Swinton is also pretty good at comedy. Channing Tatum still can’t act, but he can sing, and does a pretty good song and dance here.
Hail Caesar is a wonderfully visual movie, the viewer feels like he/she is watching those classic movies from which the scenes are taken. The Hail Caesar movie looks very much like Ben Hur. The scene with three crosses in silhouette is visually shocking for a comedy, but necessarily authentic to mimic the look of a Biblical epic. The Esther Williams vignette is visually breathtaking, and illustrates the beauty of a Busby Berkely choreographed film. The Gene Kelly-esque scene is scarily accurate in terms of visuals. The Coens also get great performances from a stellar cast. If the writing was as good as the acting and direction, this movie would have been an instant classic.
Hail Caesar. I come to bury Caesar not praise him.