The extent to which you “get” Hail, Caesar! probably depends on how much TCM you watch. Which is not to say that the movie isn’t delightful anyway, but the more you recognize about studio-era Hollywood the more rapturous your delight at seeing the Coen brothers’ takes on it.
In fact, it’s hard to say whether Hail, Caesar! is a Philip Marlowe-style mystery bedecked with set-piece tributes to other period Hollywood themes, or whether it’s a revue in the vein of That’s Entertainment! but with a running plot to string the pieces together. I’d lean towards the former, but there are times the latter does seem more appropriate.
Either way, the main story centers on Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), an executive at Capitol Pictures. He’s in charge of making sure the studio’s operations continue smoothly, but most of the time that means cleaning up after the stars to keep their faces nice and neat and marketable. When Esther Williams knock-off DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) turns up pregnant, for instance, Eddie has to get her married before she can’t fit into her mermaid costume anymore.
It also means moving Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) out of trick-riding westerns and into high-society dramas directed by no less a talent than Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), and setting him up with Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio) in order to tweak both of their images. And it means fending off the advances of Hedda Hopper-ish gossip columnists like Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), sometimes by throwing them the Doyle-Valdez story to keep them off the trail.
But the big story comes when Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) goes missing. The star of Capitol’s prestigious Ben-Hur knockoff — no points for guessing — Hail, Caesar! has a history of ill-timed benders, but this time he’s been drugged and kidnapped by a gang of Communist screenwriters more entertaining, if somewhat less factual, than the ones in last year’s Trumbo.
Even if this were it, I’m sure the Coens could spin out an engaging yarn. But it’s the studio-era Hollywood decorations that raise Hail, Caesar! to another level. Early on we get practically a full Esther Williams production number featuring DeeAnna, and then there’s a show-stopping song-and-dance number by young matinee idol Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) that may not quite match Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, but at least matches James Cagney’s work in the likes of Yankee Doodle Dandy.
And then there are the smaller bits, like a sequence with a film editor (Frances McDormand) that doesn’t serve any essential purpose to the story, but adds delightful color. Hobie Doyle’s misadventures trying to adapt his bow-legged manner to Laurence Laurentz’ staid dramatics also don’t need to be developed as fully as they are, but seeing Ehrenreich and Fiennes opposite each other is a joy.
In fact, the whole cast is charming, from Clooney playing the kind of star he might have been fifty years go right down to the rogues’ gallery of Coen regulars as the cabal of Communists who capture him. And, as we saw two years ago, there’s nothing like a quirky, madcap comedy with an impeccable pedigree for both cast and crew to liven up an otherwise dreary spring dump-season.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.