Written and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen | 106 min | ▲▲▲▲△
Once again the Coen Brothers celebrate their love of Hollywood’s golden age with a knowing comedy in the spirit of The Hudsucker Proxy and Barton Fink, though lighter and sillier than both.
Set largely at Fink‘s Capitol Pictures studio in the early 1950s—complete with a Wallace Beery conference room—it’s a little over a day in the life of the studio head, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who’s trying to track down a kidnapped star, the excellently named Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, once again providing a dunderhead for the filmmaking siblings).
Typically for a Coen comedy, the film is populated by intellectual idiots: Baird has been abducted by an enthusiastic group of middle-aged communist screenwriters looking to do good by the little guy—again, very Barton Fink. Meanwhile, a good-hearted cowboy actor gifted with the lariat (Alden Ehrenreich) is being asked to lead a drawing room drama while Mannix struggles to come to grips with the religious content of his tentpole Christ picture (see The Robe) and keeping under wraps the absence of his star from sister gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both Tilda Swinton).
All of this plus glorified cameos from the likes of Scarlett Johansson—as an Esther Williams-esque star suddenly pregnant-out-of-wedlock and juggling her options vis-a-vis public perception—Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, and Frances McDormand—the passel of them we wish we got more of—with Christopher Lambert and Clancy Brown in an unofficial Highlander reunion, though they don’t share a scene.
There’s some musing on ideology versus faith, and the temptation to worship the dream factory versus its inherent frivolity—Mannix’s being courted by Lockheed to be an executive in the much-more-serious aviation business. You can either indulge in these sly philosophies or ignore them. The pleasures of the picture, as with much of the Coens’ more self-conscious comedic work, is in their deft way with slang, the goofy asides (a homoerotic dance number, for example), inside references, and the way they channel their unabashed affection for the business of show. This is no satire, it’s a party.
While Hail, Caesar! is unlikely to be remembered alongside The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou, or Raising Arizona, their greatest comedic work (to date), it’s operating so far above your average comedic picture out of that very same dream factory it feels like a breath of warm, spring air in this chilly February release season.