Hail, Caesar! is not typical Coen Brothers fare—in fact, I can’t think of anything they’ve done during their four-decade career that’s quite like it. Sure, its structure and approach to storytelling are definitely familiar, but the finished product is different. That’s a good thing—a very good thing.
Like most if not all of their films, the story focuses on one main character—here, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, who sounds and acts more like Matt Dillon the older he gets), a gruff studio executive at fictitious Capitol Pictures whose job apparently is to solve problems for stars—as he goes through a series of bizarre events and peculiar characters. The story takes place over 24 hours in 1951. The kidnapping of lead actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) during the filming of an expensive historical epic, Hail, Caesar!, and Mannix’s efforts to track him down serve as the main plot. In the midst of finding Whitlock, Mannix dispenses with his daily duties, which include rebranding a Western actor (Alden Ehrenreich), facilitating a weird adoption for a thrice-divorced starlet (Scarlett Johansson), dealing with a persnickety director (Ralph Fiennes), beating away twin sister gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) threatening to expose studio dirty laundry, putting off a scout (Ian Blackman) wooing Mannix for a job with another company, and going to confession.
The Coen Brothers do dark humor exceedingly well, and they have their own distinct brand of it. What’s most refreshing about Hail, Caesar!, however, is its frivolity; it’s not one bit dark. Colorful, visual, big, and chock full of kitschy 50s nostalgia, the brothers keep the tone light even with the weighty parallel they draw between Capitalism, Communism, and Christianity. For example, a hilarious but smart exchange occurs during a conference with Mannix and a group of religious leaders—a Catholic priest (Robert Pike Daniel), a reverend (Allen Havey), an Eastern Orthodox clergyman (Aramazd Stepanian), and a rabbi (Robert Piccardo)—to discuss whether anything depicted in Hail, Caesar! is offensive to religion. On the surface, the conversation is about Christ, but it comically sums up the differences between certain religions and highlights the logical flaws that require faith to accept them.
The scenes on movie sets—and there are quite a few—are gorgeously eye-popping. One involves an elaborate Busby Berkeley-esque dance sequence in the water with about 30 showgirls and a mermaid. Another involves a homoerotic sailor number with Channing Tatum (who’s fucking awesome here) tap dancing to a snicker-inducing song about “dames” complete with clever nautical references to pussy. Hail, Caesar! is a sort of homage to Hollywood’s Golden Age, an era that the Coens seem to love judging from this picture. It’s a treat to see Frances McDormand, who hasn’t appeared in one of their films for awhile, in a cameo.
In the grand scheme of all things Coen, Hail, Caesar! is not their finest work—but it might be their funnest. It’s probably their purest comedy—only Raising Arizona or The Big Lebowski and maybe O Brother, Where Art Thou? come close. Those expecting No Country for Old Men, Blood Simple, or even Fargo will be sorely disappointed; anyone else will probably enjoy it for the amusing diversion it is. I’m smiling just thinking about it.