There’s one guarantee in life and that’s a Coen Bros. film, even if it opens in February away from Oscar season. Hail, Caesar! is a behind the scenes spoof of the 1950’s golden age of Hollywood. Taking place on a busy production day at Capitol Pictures, damage control specialist Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) scuttles about the backlot to snuff out potential scandals before the blow up. There’s nothing outwardly topical about this comedy, except for an early scene where four consultants of different faiths debate the essence of God – I’ve seen documentaries with panels of hyperbolic men of the cloth foaming at the mouth about what God is. But this satire of course is played for ribbing laughs.
Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is a former drunk and womanizer, but has reformed into becoming the studio’s name star, and is playing one of Julius Caesar’s soldiers in the production before he is poisoned and kidnapped off the studio lot. We will learn the culprits responsible are a league of Communist screenwriters.
Yes, there’s that A-frame story, but the film often takes long detours around the studio lot for what turns in an ensemble. Scarlett Johansson is an Ethel Merman-like starlet in a Busby Berkeley-like production whose wet suit gets tighter once she is pregnant out of wedlock (her innocent image to be tarnished!). Alden Ehrenreich is a gosh golly cowboy star like Gene Autry with awful diction and humble manners, and is an awkward replacement on a new black & white melodrama to be directed by a George Cukor type (Ralph Fiennes, showing his gifts for uptight Brit comedy). Channing Tatum gets a long tap dance number (“No Dames!”) as a Gene Kelley type making an “Anchors Aweigh” type of musical farce.
There are also throwaways with a Hedda Hopper gossip columnist (Tilda Swinton) nosing around the studio, and nebbish lawyers (Jonah Hill, one of them) coming up with revolutionary ideas (!) on how to protect the studio’s interest.
With all these diversions, “Hail, Caesar!” inevitably has clunkier plotting than most Joel and Ethan Coen Bros. outputs. I know I can marvel over and over again at how tightly wound, and amusingly unspooled there plot is for, say, “Burn After Reading.” The plot is less important here, instead it’s an incredibly amusing ramble and love note to 50’s heyday Hollywood. In fact, I was disappointed – rarely for a Coen Bros. movie – when a surprise villain was revealed. I didn’t think the film needed it.
I must have a half dozen scenes in my head I am truly tickled by, vintage Coen Bros. goofing around. I want to tell you about all of them. I won’t, but will say that I can have harder, more rolling belly laughs in deadpan style comedies (hence the Coens’ work) than I do at broad commercial comedies. Because you have a funny moment with any given sap who makes a mistake, tries to cover his mistake, tries sincerely to improve on camera, and keeps looking sappier and klutzier as he goes on. I’m talking this goes on with several characters here.
Then you have Brolin who plays gruff, no-nonsense hardball. The Eddie Mannix character was played for strict drama by Bob Hoskins in the 2006 film “Hollywoodland,” also a good film, but that one didn’t put a saucy smile on my face like this one.
106 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
COMEDY / SMART TEENS / FRIDAY NIGHT LAUGHFEST