What keeps him from making a decision are several small fires and a blazing one. Starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is on the verge of being a single mother. Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is being moved from his successful niche as a singing cowboy into that of a suave leading man in a tuxedo, a role that director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) immediately finds intolerable. The most pressing issue on Mannix’s attention is the abduction of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) in the midst of filming a road-show Biblical epic. This titular film is stuffed with all the high-mindedness that Mannix can muster, a tale of Jesus on the cross that will inspire as much as it will divert its audience and fill the studio’s coffers. A delay in production puts all that at risk. While Mannix hunts for his missing star, Whitlock is being fed socialist talking points from his captors, a group of frustrated and overlooked writers who’ve been subverting the studio system to make communism more attractive, though one gets the feeling that a little more money and acclaim for their work would have made them just as happy as the workers of the world uniting.
The great fun of Hail, Caesar is apparent in myriad ways, most particularly in how absurd so many of the proceedings are. The first words out of Doyle’s mouth are hilarious, marking him as a twangy rube who’s good with a lasso and terrible with a bon motte. The film spends a long time on his first day on Laurentz’s production, struggling to hit his mark and say a single line, exasperating the posh director who is fundamentally incapable of describing what ‘rueful’ means to his new star. On the set of Hail, Caesar, the Coens are constantly depuffing the self-seriousness of the endeavor. Mannix is concerned about the meaning of Whitlock’s big conversion scene, but the religious council he’s formed to ask for advice are more worried about the realism of a chariot race. When the centerpiece scene finally happens, Whitlock’s big monologue is interrupted by a flub and a subsequent taking of the lord’s name in vain, despite said lord being depicted by an uncomfortable extra, strapped to a cross, right in front of him. Two big musical scenes are impressive to look at, but are depicted as empty spectacle. The Coens see it all as art-as-commerce, while Mannix would like to see it as art that has the happy side effect of making a profit.
The Coens vision gets more opaque when the socialist saboteurs are onscreen. Unraveling meaning from a Coens film is part of the appeal, and that holds true in Hail, Caesar. The kidnapping writers, who call themselves The Future, are deliberately cast and made up to look like grasping schlubs compared to the likes of Whitlock or Moran or Channing Tatum’s Burt Gurney. They’re operating in the shadows of an industry that thrives in the spotlight, making Whitlock their perfect ambassador if they can convince him. The comparisons to real Hollywood, particularly Dalton Trumbo’s work on another sword-and-sandals epic in Spartacus, are apparent. The Coens, by being the Coens, invite all kinds of guesses and theories about what’s happening beneath the surface, but it could be as simple as film as a battleground of ideas, fought by nebbishy weaklings on one side and blinded authoritarians on the other. Both parties, Mannix and The Future, serve distant and unseen masters who are handy with a censor’s edit and are in pursuit of grand, propagandistic schemes. The Coens are one of the few directors who can get away with this kind of mental game without becoming pretentious, and it’s what makes their films so enthralling. The viewer hangs on every word for the potential key that proves or disproves a thematic theory.
Commentaries about Hollywood can land badly due to their inherent insider nature, but Hail, Caesar elides this problem by making the film surrounding their satire as much fun as possible. In addition to the above humorous, spectacular bits, the deep cast ensures that no role is wasted. Tilda Swinton, as is her wont, plays a pair of gossip-hound twins in fierce competition with each other. Jonah Hill emerges, in his one scene, as the heavy-set, monotone answer to Moran’s problems, an emotionless flunkie whose lack of drama is exactly what the starlet’s been looking for. Michael Gambon does a sonorous narration as heavy as the film is light, Alex Karpovsky might not speak but he wields a flash-bulb camera like a pro, and Frances McDormand briefly appears as a maestro film editor, locked away to work her magic in a dank hidey-hole somewhere on the studio lot, one more reminder that expertise is secondary to superficiality.
It’s all in pursuit of pulling the curtain off a revered period in cinema that produced classics but also plenty of crap. The real Golden Age of Hollywood, the late 60’s and 70’s, found directors throwing off the shadowy studios and the censors and doing exactly what they wanted, but even during that time, how many boat accident movies were there for every Taxi Driver? Film is about sustaining an illusion, and Hail, Caesar loves to show the artifice under the glitz. Hobie’s teeth are all fake thanks to a wayward horse hoof, the musical number about Navy men missing women at sea is really about what’s unspeakable for the time period, and Moran’s mermaid tale costume is deeply uncomfortable. An industry and a protagonist that asserts the truth as whatever it says it is fits nicely with a Soviet Union that does exactly the same thing, making Mannix the KGB rezident par excellence. The alternative might be making weapons of mass destruction, but he’s doing plenty of damage already. Hail, Caesar is another superb entry from some of the best directors working today, operating in a milieu and a tone that they’ve singularly mastered. A