When Hollywood takes on Hollywood the results can be laugh-out-loud funny or a disastrous misfire. Fortunately for audiences, the Coen Brothers’ new journey through the looking glass at the Hollywood of 1951 is the former. Clever production whisks us back to the days when TV was still a gleam in the entertainment industry’s eye, a woman wouldn’t be seen without a hat, and movies ruled the world. Filled with quirky cameo performances by such heavy hitters as Jonah Hill, Ralph Fiennes and Frances McDormand, “Hail, Caesar” is full of Easter egg references for old movie aficionados. But you don’t have to know old Hollywood to laugh at the new version.
Josh Brolin plays Capitol Pictures studio head Eddie Mannix in a nod to one of MGM’s better-known executives. The real Mannix was nicknamed “the Fixer” and Brolin’s version does indeed fix the awkward situations that his stars get involved in – sexual shenanigans, alcoholic wipe-outs – but he’s been approached by a higher-up at Lockheed who wants him to leave the studio and take an executive position at the aerospace company. Mannix obsessively visits his church confessional to talk to his priest about his life choices but has a tough time deciding what to do.
Surrounding Mannix and his ongoing midlife crisis is an entire cast of actors, writers and directors involved in complicated and interlocking subplots whose interaction is part of the fun of the film. A group of disaffected writers with economic grievances have decided that communism will provide equality for all. Declaring their allegiance to the Soviet Union they decide to kidnap the studio’s biggest star, George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock, and hold him for ransom. On another soundstage DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), in an Esther Williams homage, has a large pool, a bunch of Busby Berkeley routines that look great on film and a slight public relations problem with unwed motherhood. Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is a singing cowboy star who the home office wants a reluctant director to turn into Cary Grant. As musical star Burt Gurney, Channing Tatum does a great riff on Gene Kelly’s dancing sailor but Burt, too, has some scandal hiding under the carpet. And Tilda Swinton as rival twin gossip columnists is focused on trying to dig up the dirt that Eddie Mannix is trying so hard to bury.
Cleverly cast and deftly acted, the actors make the most of some very funny material. Whether it’s Ralph Fiennes as a terribly posh English director trying to teach cowboy Hobie to speak the Queen’s English or Mannix trying to understand a theological discussion between a priest, a minister, a patriarch and a rabbi, great gags keep coming. George Clooney’s dim but amiable Baird Whitlock works well as a spoof of actor Robert Taylor in his role as Marcus Vinicius in the 1951 MGM Biblical extravaganza “Quo Vadis,” which tells the story of Jesus from the viewpoint of a Roman centurion. Taylor named names during the McCarthy black list hearings and Clooney’s Baird, kidnapped by communist writers, sitting in his centurion outfit at the feet of a Marxist guru, would make him roll over in protest. Such are the multitude of in jokes and sideswipes that pack the picture as richly as a Christmas fruitcake.
See you at the movies!