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'Hail, Caesar!' is the Coens' deceptively light look at Old Hollywood

The legendary filmmakers take on the Golden Age in a film that's more mysterious than it often lets on.
Hail, Caesar!Hail, Caesar!

‘Hail, Caesar!’
Directors:
Joel and Ethan Coen
Stars: Josh Brolin, George Clooney
Rating: PG-13
4 (out of 5) Globes

“Hail, Caesar!” is the lightest, fleet-footiest film the Coen brothers have yet made — but if you know their work, you know never to let down your guard. The Coens are rarely more serious than when they’re having fun. The bleakest film on their CV isn’t “No Country for Old Men” or even “A Serious Man.” It’s “Burn After Reading,” a virtual live-action cartoon in which characters are punished by forces they know nothing about, where the nicest character is shot in face and even the FBI can’t figure out what happened.

“Hail, Caesar” doesn’t go that dark, but it’s another rumination on the distractions that fill our existence — the lies that give us a sense of misjudged purpose. It’s just couched in a film that’s catnip to both Coen heads and TCM addicts. It takes a long, deep stew in Golden Age Hollywood, tossing off veiled references to swimming pool star Esther Williams, singing cowboys and, most prominently, Eddie Mannix, the notorious “fixer” who kept scandals perpetrated by MGM property (i.e., its stars) out of the papers.

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This being a Coen film, naturally Mannix is our hero. Played by Josh Brolin, he’s a slightly softer, somewhat fictionalized version of the real deal — a brute who beat his girlfriends and wives, tarnished the names of rape victims and may have even covered up the murder of onetime Superman George Reeves. The Coens’ Mannix, by contrast, is introduced in a confession booth, shame-facedly telling a priest he patrons too frequently that he’s really trying to quit smoking for his wife. He even apologizes to an actor after giving him a good smack-around.

“Hail, Caesar!” gives us 36 hours in Mannix’s life circa 1951 — a day that starts well before dawn and is so packed that the drugging and kidnapping of a movie star (George Clooney) by a group of disgruntled commie screenwriters barely makes a blip. He’s perpetually at work, cleaning up messes, dealing with miscast actors (Alden Ehrenreich, doing a mean imitation of stiff old-timey acting), struggling to find a husband for a star (Scarlett Johansson) whose out-of-wedlock pregnancy means she won’t soon fit into her “fish ass” mermaid costume.

Mannix is focused, but on a million things at once. So is the film. Like “The Big Lebowski,” it features a plot that intentionally peters out and a structure that gets stuck in tangents. Here, things routinely stop dead so we can watch the Coens imitate B-movie Westerns, Biblical epics, a drama and two separate types of musicals. At worst it plays like a battering ram of disconnected great scenes, with the Clooney business hovering in the background, resolving itself absurdly. That’s a pretty great “worst” to have, especially when it means dwelling on such behind-the-scenes business as the dominance of female film editors (the one here is played by Frances McDormand and on overly-long scarf). There’s even a theological debate featuring priests duking it out with one of the Coens’ beloved pissy rabbis.

RELATED: Interview: Josh Brolin has (very mild) beef with his father

Genuine love is mixed with genuine mockery, as it always is with the Coens. But apart from the nudge-nudge-say-no-more lyrics of the Tatum sailor song — which is equal parts “On the Town” and Kenneth Anger’s “Fireworks” — they play them next-to-straight. Johansson’s watery ballet could almost pass for real, with its shot of ScarJo emerging from the pool with a huge grin fixed on her face and two lit sparklers on her head. It’s an illusion about an illusion — a literal dream factory held together by bubble gum and Scotch tape, that somehow kept afloat for three decades before falling apart. The end is near, Mannix is repeatedly reminded by a headhunter, who wants to lure him away from an industry that might be toppled by its latest threat: television.

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In reality, the studio system lived on, at least for a few more years, before evolving into something else, then something else, then something else — right now as something that can only find a couple handful of millions for a movie like this, at a time when even star power (Clooney! Tatum! Johansson! A bit of Jonah Hill!) can’t guarantee success. The deeper meaning of “Hail, Caesar!” is more difficult to suss out than it usually is with the Coens. But by the end it underlines and italicizes the notion that Mannix, and those at the top of the studio, are godlike figures, working behind the scenes to keep a machine going, at least until its brief existence finally comes to an end. And even the people who created this mess don’t know their time will one day be up. Smile and laugh along with “Hail, Caesar!”, but it’s at your own peril.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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