Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Stars: Josh Brolin, George Clooney
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.
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.