One of the most inventive and idiosyncratic directing duos in moviemaking history, Joel and Ethan Coen, has delivered yet another gem with its latest film, “Hail, Caesar!” Boasting a star-studded cast led by Josh Brolin and George Clooney, the film is a masterful homage to the “Golden Age of Cinema” and a genuinely funny comedy to boot. With an engaging, clever script and prodigious performances from Hollywood heavyweights, the movie perfectly blends lighthearted humor and film noir.
Set in the 1950s, Capitol Pictures studio boss Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a workaholic fixer of Hollywood problems. From averting snooping gossip columnists (identical twin sisters, both played by Tilda Swinton) to placating veteran filmmakers (Ralph Fiennes), Mannix does a bit of everything. Starring the legendary Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the studio’s biggest picture of the year is the biblical epic “Hail, Caesar!” Mannix is determined to make the hugely expensive film a hit, but it isn’t long before a shady group calling itself “the Future” kidnaps his hungover star for ransom.
Desperate to salvage the movie, Mannix finds himself surrounded by an eclectic cast of characters including actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), actress DeeAnna Moran (an Esther Williams-type played by Scarlett Johansson) and communist sympathizer Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum). Mannix, a light of prudence in an otherwise decadent time, does his best to protect his clients and save Whitlock on a journey rife with twists and self-discovery.
From “Fargo” (1996) to “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1993), the Coen brothers have oscillated between ethnographic realism and artificial fabrication, two seemingly irreconcilable positions along the spectrum of cinematic expression. However, “Hail, Ceasar!” combines both approaches by merging detailed reconstruction of the sets of identifiable movies with majestic natural settings. Particularly striking is Johansson’s entrance, emerging atop a huge column of water dressed as a shiny green mermaid. The division between the idealized universe of film and real life emerges impetuously: Johansson appears graceful and elegant during the mermaids’ synchronized swimming ballet, before flopping like a dead fish on the water’s surface.
The film is built on a series of engaging dialogues characteristic of a Coen brothers script, interrupted by sudden changes of framing perspectives and some sharp camera angles, such as one that persistently focuses on a jumping dog that welcomes guests into the stony beach house. This eccentric comedy is built into richly ruminative, yet hilarious, levels: Characters address everything from the conception of Christ in different organized religions to communism.
Some of the best scenes in the film are the movies within the movie. From the eponymous epic to Hobie’s cowboy flicks to Johansson’s mermaid flick, each one feels as though it was pulled straight from the 1950s. As hokey as these sequences may be, the Coen brothers take the opportunity to show off their love and appreciation for an earlier era.
Like the plots of the Coen brother’s earlier films such as “The Big Lebowki,” the quickly resolved mystery of Whitlock’s kidnapping is light on suspense and high on philosophy. Even so, with dazzling art direction and strong performances across the board, the Coen brothers’ new production will entertain audiences and critics alike.