Film Review: Hilarious ‘Hail, Caesar!’ Hails and Skewers Hollywood

“Hail, Caesar!,” an off-center Hollywood farce from the brothers Coen, takes place in 1951, a year not unlike 2016. In the movie, television is eclipsing film in popularity and the studios are manufacturing bloated Technicolor spectaculars to maintain their dwindling market share. With communist sympathizers in the screenwriters’ ranks and arms manufacturers out to recruit the studio’s most effective executive—a devout Catholic overseeing a biblical film called “Hail Caesar, a Tale of Christ’s Life”—the lines between religious and political beliefs begin to blur, just as the faithful and the political are at their most dogmatic.

The still point in this whirling world is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a so-called fixer at Capitol Studios, the outfit that employed the Coens’ Barton Fink in the 1991 movie of the same name. Mannix (based on a real MGM exec far less benign than this character) makes production schedules run on time and keeps A-list stars out of gossip columns.

Mannix’s day begins with a dream Coen setup. A priest, a rabbi and a minister (plus a Greek Orthodox patriarch) walk into a movie studio. The exec wants their collective blessing on the biblical film. The clergymen differ over interpretations of Jesus and God—guess who says “God is a bachelor, and he is very angry”—but can agree on one thing: That chariot race is unrealistic.

Getting their approval is the least of the fixer’s challenges in “Hail, Caesar!,” a manic comedy that is full-throttle funny and lovingly shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins.

Mannix’s million-dollar mermaid (Scarlett Johansson as an Esther Williams-like aquatic star) is unwed and preggers. (But can she give up the baby and adopt it herself?)

His top-billed talent, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the centurion in “The Life of the Christ,” gets kidnapped by a cabal of screenwriters and is converted to communism by none other than “Professor Marcuse” after the philosopher gives the dimwitted star a course in “Dialectics for Dummies.” (Can the Capitol Studios exec convert Baird back to his pro-capital roots?)

Add to this a subplot about the studio’s singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich, in the film’s standout performance) needed for a posh romantic comedy and a sailors-on-leave production number, a triumph of Hollywood homoeroticism called “No Dames,” starring hoofer Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum). Though seemingly superfluous, these diversions prove essential to the story narrated by Michael Gambon.

Among other things, the Coens’ backstage drawing-room Western musical biblical (with a splash of synchronized swimming) is a tribute to midcentury escapism. At the same time it celebrates the variety show that is Hollywood, the film also pointedly sends up the hypocrisy and self-importance of both movie people and ordinary folk. (If you’re aghast that it suggests politically engaged screenwriters, many of whom lost careers after appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee, were interested only in a bigger share of Hollywood profits, remember the Coens are equal-opportunity caricaturists.)

For movie geeks, the film’s inside-Hollywood elements are as entertaining as the broadly comic performances by Clooney, Ehrenreich, Johansson and Tatum. However absurd the film may seem, unwed actress Loretta Young did, in fact, give up her baby for adoption—and promptly adopt her. However absurd it is to see Clooney in centurion garb in a Malibu living room, it echoes a Kirk Douglas story about being dressed as Spartacus and abandoned by his driver on the way to Palm Springs. Much of the movie’s absurdism has its basis in Hollywood lore.

First and last, “Hail, Caesar!” is a worthy companion piece to the Coens’ sober “Barton Fink,” about a socially conscious screenwriter who gets lost in the illusions of Hollywood’s dream factory. As in their prior film, in this unapologetically frivolous entertainment about the fixer who has a choice between 27-hour-days at the studio or a 9-to-5 in aerospace, our audience surrogate prefers illusion to reality. And who can blame him?

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