Hail, Caesar! is the Coen brothers’ most positive comedy. I admit that I was prompted to think there would be a fair amount of political abuse because of the trailer for Trumbo they showed beforehand, but no-one gets really hurt in the feature. The worst that happens is that Hollywood superstar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is abducted from the set of his biblical epic by a group of Communist screenwriters who call themselves The Future. Theirs is the friendliest abduction in movie history, which is surprising because the movie is set in the late 1950s. They cannot bring themselves round to telling Whitlock that he has been abducted, but fill his thick head with talk of production and economics and the value of the little guy and that with his studio’s money, they could support the cause. Gentle old Dr. Marcuse (John Bluthal) tells him about the end of history. Whitlock doesn’t get any of it, but he likes it there in that beach villa, reclining in his deck chair, cigarette and martini in hand, still in his Centurion’s uniform.
Whitlock’s absence means a lot of work for Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), nominally a studio executive, but really a troubleshooter and go-to guy for Capitol Pictures and their volatile stars. He has to find Whitlock, he has to talk to a Catholic priest, a Protestant one, a Rabbi and an Eastern Orthodox clergyman in order to make sure that the screenplay for Hail, Ceasar! isn’t religiously offensive. That scene is as funny as they come. He also does all the press liaison, which is not easy because not one, but two rival journalists, and rival sisters (both played by Tilda Swinton) want to know where Whitlock is. Mannix also has to handle the problem of Esther Williams-style star DeeAnna Moran’s (Scarlett Johansson) pregnancy by a man not her husband. Soon, she might no longer fit into that fishtail.
If there is a main role in this movie, it’s Brolin’s. Apart from him and Clooney, everyone seems to be in a supporting role. There are so many cameos that to list them would spoil the fun, but there were about fifteen faces I was pleased to see. It’s to the Coens’ credit that the movie doesn’t fall apart, although the plot is sort of brilliant in its silliness. Remember when all those years ago, Tim Robbins held up a piece of paper with a circle on it and said: “You know, for kids!”?
It’s been a while since I’ve laughed along with a huge audience in a very good comedy. There is only mild overacting, no blood, advanced foolery, a dance number, and generally a lot of studio system movie magic. What charmed me utterly was the effortless conjuring up of a bygone time. Ralph Fiennes looks and speaks like a British director who wants to make artistic movies, but gets hung up by thick jarring accents. The film doesn’t let you forget that you are watching a movie – sometimes you are watching a movie within a movie. The plot is tentative and episodic, but not dumb. Hail, Caesar! could have become a sterile exercise, but not with the Coens. Their first movie is 32 years old, and still they have that fresh approach to the stories they tell.