Hail, Caesar!
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If Hail, Caesar! is the Coen brothers’s Contempt—Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 mock epic about the making of a historical blockbuster in postwar Hollywood—then it’s an homage that inverts Godard’s satirical aims. Caesar’s moral center doesn’t belong to a lone writer or director struggling against the corrupt studio systems, but to producer and studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who has the unenviable task of managing the egos and personal crises of the “creatives” in his charge. Mannix is an actual historical figure, and a colorful cast of Coen regulars, newcomers, and star cameos is playfully split between real personages and fictionalized caricatures from the decadent Hollywood of the early fifties.

Mannix’s biggest challenge comes when megastar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped for ransom just before the final two days of shooting Hail, Caesar!, a prestige epic about the life and death of Christ told from the perspective of an “ordinary Roman.” This central plotline is an excuse for a series of hilarious vignettes, many of them literal set pieces. Ralph Fiennes’s Laurence Olivier parody (“Laurence Laurentz”) as he coaches disastrously miscast cowboy actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) through a single line of dialogue is a standout, as is a borderline lewd song-and-dance number in which Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum, channeling Gene Kelly) gets down with an all-male cast of sailors.

Tilda Swinton is perfect in a dual role as dueling twin sister gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (a play on the infamous Hedda Hopper-Louella Parsons rivalry), and the usually flat Scarlett Johansson has a surprisingly funny turn as water ballet star DeAnna Moran. The inevitable drawback to the quantity of talent on display is that so much of it is underused, though it does allow the Coens to get away with meandering pacing. There’s always something new to grab our attention, even if its connection to the plot isn’t clear until the end.

Coen aficionados will note that Hail, Caesar! picks up where 1991’s Barton Fink left off. Not only do both depict the fictional Capitol Studios, based on MGM, but both also send up the intellectualized pretensions of film artists (especially writers) who aim to represent “the common man.” A Monty Python-esque “study group” with Whitlock’s disgruntled kidnappers centers on a “dialectical” critique of the Hollywood film industry, with charming doofus Whitlock as the foil. The scene brilliantly highlights the pettiness and self-serving naiveté of its members, as Fink did with a snobby left-wing playwright trying to educate his apparently oafish working-class acquaintance on radical aesthetics. But the darkness at the core of that film is missing from this one. In its place is a defense—doused in Coen irony, of course—of Hollywood at its most superficial.

In Hail, Caesar!, the movie business is a quasi-religious enterprise, and Eddie Mannix is its church militant. In the background of his chores for the studio is a tempting job offer from Lockheed, the opportunity to “run a business, not a circus.” As long as he has no ethical qualms about the military-industrial complex—and there’s no suggestion that he does—it seems like a no-brainer. Mannix’s loyalty to the movie business is too arbitrary to make us care whether he’ll give it up, and his periodic visits to confession for nothing more serious than a smoking habit (“You’re not that bad,” the exasperated priest tells him) confirms the purity of his soul. The real Mannix, having been accused of murder among countless cover-ups and acts of coercion, was less upstanding and consequently more interesting than his portrayal here. Instead, the Coens use him as a paragon of faith in the movie business.

As in orthodox theology, the nature of that faith is at once simple and complex. In another great scene, Mannix holds a focus-group meeting with authorities from different creeds and denominations to ensure that “no reasonable American” will be offended by their portrayal of Christ, which rapidly descends into a pointless debate about the nature of the godhead. The film’s structure, with big show-stopping odes to forgotten genres tied together with complicated plot threads that ultimately come to nothing, makes a similar point. The Hollywood of Hail, Caesar! may be run by craven schemers, but it’s all miraculously redeemed by what its voice-over narrator (Michael Gambon) calls “a truth told not in words, but light.” This is as direct an argument for Hollywood cinema as we’ve seen from the Coens. That they chose to frame it with a Christian allegory, of all things, is a mystery for the faithful to decipher.