Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill

Steeped in Hollywood history and lore, this latest offering from the Coen Brothers is a farce with a lot on its mind. It’s a comedy, it’s a history lesson, it’s a love letter to a bygone age and a condemnation of the exploitative systems that made such an age possible. It is many things, all of them quite wonderful.

Narratively, it’s a day or so in the life of one Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, doing his best John Polito impression), Head of Physical Production at Capitol Pictures by title, fixer and bagman by vocation. Mannix’s main job is covering up any indiscretions and scandals that might affect the bottom line. In the film’s early 1950s setting, the bar is low: a pregnant and unwed headliner is a major problem, a rumour of homosexuality a disaster. Mannix is a master of his field, trading favours, manipulating actors, directors and studio suits, and generally doing anything necessary to keep rival twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton, both modeled on legendary scandal monger Hedda Hopper) from publishing anything too damaging.

It’s an exhausting gig that keeps Mannix away from his wife and kids of punishingly long hours, which explains why Mannix is entertaining a lucrative offer from Lockheed to come work in the ostensibly more important and less loony aircraft industry. His possible career change must take a back seat, however, when leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped from the set of the biblical epic he’s starring in by a mysterious coven who sign their ransom demand “The Future.”

Hail Caesar! is yet another lovingly-crafted period piece from the Coens, recreating the mythical Hollywood of yesteryear as a fast-moving milieu of paper-thin morals and never-ending layers of illusion and subterfuge, where flighty stars, pretentious directors, harried middlemen and anonymous technicians all toil in service to the whims of the monolithic studio, Echoing famed screenwriter William Goldman’s maxim “In Hollywood nobody knows anything,” the world shown here is one perpetually on the brink of disaster thanks to the short-sighted and contradictory desires of, well, pretty much everyone.

By contrast, Mannix is presented as a moral and steadfast man, or at least a man who considers himself moral: although he is unfazed by the venality he deals with every day, sneaking a cigarette behind his wife’s back sends him running to the confessional. For Mannix, the studio’s plan and God’s plan are equally ineffable – he simply knows he must serve both as best he can. Hence when Scarlett Johansson’s Esther Williams-esque starlet falls pregnant to Christopher Lambert’s* louche – and happily married – European director, he strives to find a workable solution. Likewise, when the studio insists on casting amiable singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich, who just about walks away with the movie) in British director Laurence Laurentz’s (Ralph Fiennes) mannered drawing room drama, Mannix insists that the appalled filmmaker toe the line, in spite of Hobie’s unsuitability for the role.

It’s all about serving an ethos, you see, even when that ethos is provably flawed. Mannix is a man who believes in the system, and lord help anyone who seeks to undermine it on his watch. That it’s populated by two-faced narcissists and exploits its workers is of no matter. The nominal villains here are a cabal of Communist screenwriters  – played by a murderer’s row of great character actors – who are tired of seeing the profits from their labours disappear into the studio’s pockets, and while it’s easy to see their point, they’re just another obstacle to Mannix, one to be dealt with as quickly and efficiently as possible.

All this is handled in an admirably deft and droll manner – Hail Caesar! is consistently amusing and occasionally downright hilarious. The script is nimble, the dialogue sparkling, and if the various plotlines don’t converge in quite as satisfying a manner as they might have, they at least provide a suitable framework for the Coens to hang a dizzying number of barbs, jabs and homages on. Hail Caesar! takes its name from just one film within the film; in addition to the eponymous biblical epic, we also get glimpses of singing cowboy oater Lazy Ol’ Moon, high society drama Merrily We Dance, aquatic dance pic Jonah’s Daughter, and whatever the Anchors Aweigh!-like song and dance picture we see Channing Tatum in. The cumulative effect is a kind of “Take that!” to modern film genre sensibilities; certainly what’s currently screening at the local multiplex seems pretty homogeneous compared to the dazzling variety of material Capitol Pictures throws at the wall.

For film fans, Hail Caesar! is a delight – a non-stop in-joke that rewards deep knowledge of film history and culture. Simultaneously skewering the excesses and hypocrisy of the industry while still lauding its successes, it’s a prefect encapsulation of the Coens’ often prickly relationship with genre and narrative formality, and a blast to boot. Say what you want about the tenets of classical studio filmmaking, at least it’s an ethos – and clearly, for all its shortcomings, one worth defending.

TRAVIS JOHNSON

*Clancy Brown also crops up for a couple of scenes. it’s a Highlander reunion!

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