In the early 1950s, Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) must defuse a variety of situations while contemplating an offer to become a Lockheed executive. A twice-divorced swimming starlet (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant, a singing cowboy actor (Alden Ehrenreich) has been shoehorned into a period drama role to which he is ill-suited, and twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) hound him with threats and inquiries. Things go from bad to worse when leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) disappears from the set of a high-budget epic set in ancient Rome and a group called The Future demands $100,000 for his safe return.
Though their oeuvre is definitely diverse, the Coen Brothers have long had an affinity for screwball comedies and old-timey Hollywood. Both are on full display here to the extent that Hail, Caesar! is little more than one long homage. It also happens to be a fitfully funny skewering of many of the same conventions that it seems to praise, something which may have sailed over the heads of dismissive viewers who lacked exposure to the big studio productions of the 1940s and 1950s.
Despite featuring a real person (Mannix was an infamous longtime MGM executive) as its protagonist, Hail, Caesar! is by no means a biopic. It presents an entirely fictional narrative that is laced with shout-outs to real happenings and popular Hollywood myths. The big-name cast, which includes Johansson, Ehrenreich, Swinton, Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, and Channing Tatum, convincingly channels Esther Williams/Loretta Young, Roy Rogers/Gene Autry, Hedda Hopper/Louella Parsons, Charlton Heston/Kirk Douglas/Robert Taylor, George Cukor, and Gene Kelly, respectively. Not only are the mannerisms spot-on, but the film is well-costumed and rich with period detail.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Coen Brothers film if everything was played straight, and it certainly isn’t here. Witness Ehrenreich’s groan-inducing inability to lose his Southern accent, Tatum’s exaggeratedly homoerotic dance sequence from a Navy musical, or Swinton’s (both of her characters) progressively ostentatious hats, and you’ll get a good idea of Hail Caesar’s sensibility. Even when the film attempts to tackle more serious issues – religious iconography in cinema, Communist influence in Hollywood, the morality of the studio system – it does so mercilessly and irreverently.
And yet, for as fun as this film is, there is no getting around the pointlessness of its convoluted plot. This is less a coherent story and more a collection of shenanigans that Mannix (who is a deadpan tough guy everywhere but at home or in a confessional booth) has to mop up, and little is resolved by the end. A previous Coen Brothers film, Burn After Reading, concluded by having characters wonder aloud what just happened and what they could possibly learn from the experience. Viewing Hail, Caesar! will leave you thinking much the same.
Even viewed charitably, Hail, Caesar! does not rank toward the top of the brothers’ output. However, if you have any appreciation for or recollection of classic Hollywood, this reference-laden send-up is likely to leave you entertained.