Hail, Caesar! is the Coens’ trick bouquet to old Hollywood

Scarlett Johansson in Hail, Caesar!

Scarlett Johansson in Hail, Caesar!

Funny how the “Golden Age” of Hollywood is a construct more real in our collective cultural consciousness than it is onscreen. We see some contemporary movie or other that annoys us, and then selective memory takes over: We find ourselves wishing that modern studios would “make ’em like they used to.” While a fair few old classics from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s do stand up admirably to repeated viewing, the truth is that they represent a small minority of Hollywood’s mid-century output. Some of the “great” old movies that live blissfully inside our heads are best left that way, rather than tarnished by reacquaintance. A lot of drek comes out now, and a lot of drek came out back then, too.

A more recent movie-industry institution built on a foundation of hipster irony, absurdist angst and post-Peckinpah gore-as-art, the Coen Brothers, seems an unlikely candidate to proffer today’s audiences an unabashed Valentine to the old Hollywood, but so it has come to pass: Their latest, Hail, Caesar! is often tongue-in-cheek but blissfully irony-free, and one of the most seamlessly enjoyable flicks to come down the pike in a good while. It is often laugh-out-loud funny, and embraces the bloated aesthetics of the days when mammoth studios ruled supreme even while it punctures them oh-so-affectionately.

Though it was a project oft sidelined while Joel and Ethan Coen worked on other things (they’d been tossing the idea back and forth for at least 12 years), Hail, Caesar! has the feel of a movie that these guys have longed to make for a long time. Set in 1951, it’s not their first vehicle that deals with the smelly underbelly of the Dream Factory, and the fictitious (and most symbolically named) Capitol Pictures is even the same studio that employed fictitious fish-out-of-water screenwriter Barton Fink ten years earlier.

But tonally, Hail, Caesar! has very little to do with the Hollywood of Barton Fink. It’s satirical, yes, but it’s not at all dark – a movie made by a couple of well-established former upstarts who are no longer young, and no longer ashamed to admit that they love movies right down to their toes. Even the bad guys are only marginally bad: The Communist cell of underpaid screenwriters that kidnaps lunkhead megastar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) consists not so much of sinister plotters for world domination as of intellectual windbags in tweed jackets with elbow patches who become somewhat less ideologically pure once they’ve converted the highly suggestible Whitlock to their cause and he asks for his fair share of his own ransom money.

The cost overruns caused by Whitlock’s disappearance at a critical point in the shooting of the titular high-budget biblical epic is just one in a typical day’s list of headaches for studio “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the film’s central character. Crises like the unplanned pregnancy of an Esther Williamslike star (Scarlett Johansson) who can no longer squeeze with ease into her mermaid’s tail for an over-the-top water ballet scene, or the disastrous miscasting of a Gene Autryish singing cowboy with an untamable Western drawl (Alden Ehrenreich) in a sophisticated drawing-room melodrama, or the incessant pestering and threats of twin Hedda Hopperesque scandal-sheet snoopers (both played by Tilda Swinton) competing for an exclusive – all drive Mannix up the wall, and into the confessional so often that even his priest complains.

He’s tempted by the offer dangled by a Lockheed executive of a cushy, stable management job that will consistently let him get home in time for dinner with his family. But Mannix is damn good at what he does and knows it, and he is totally bought into the Dream Factory dream. Giving the masses joy and escape through a night at the movies is his higher purpose in life. So we watch him negotiate the minefield of his stable of prima donnas and screw-ups, deftly playing one against another while desperately trying to retrieve his missing star.

It’s more of a shaggy-dog story in the vein of Raising Arizona or Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? than a tense crime caper; but the rambly narrative frequently cuts away to a long, opulently staged and shot production number from a Capitol Pictures soundstage, all of which are so on-point and adoringly Hollywoodesque that one doesn’t mind the frequent digressions at all. An acrobatic all-male song-and-dance sequence out of a musical comedy very like Anchors Aweigh and starring Channing Tatum in the Gene Kelly role is worth the price of admission all by itself.

The cast is splendid and everybody looks like they’re having a blast making this flick. Clooney has altogether too much fun sending up his own matinée-idol public image, shambling around a Malibu mansion while still in his Roman centurion getup and dimly-but-earnestly trying to grasp and digest all the party-line gobbledygook that he’s being fed by his captors. Coen Brothers stalwart (and Joel’s wife) Frances McDormand has a terrific comedic bit as a tough-as-nails film editor nearly done in by her machine. Jonah Hill has only about three lines as an attorney retained by Mannix to solve the actress’s unwed motherhood problem via an adoption switcheroo, but absolutely nails them with memorable tone and timing.

Funniest of all is the scene in which the drawing-room movie’s director tries, with perfect British manners and reserve showing hints of fraying at the seams from stress, to make a silk purse out of the hopeless sow’s ear that is the cowboy star. The director is played by the peerless Ralph Fiennes with the same sort of contained-but-transcendent lunacy that he brought to the role of the concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel; and indeed, there’s a suggestion of Wes Anderson’s demented worldview in the Coen Brothers’ fraught, borderline-ridiculous dialogue for Hail, Caesar! (though not so much in its cinematography). Whenever Eddie Mannix confronts one of his errant minions, one hears faint echoes of Jack Webb playing Joe Friday in Dragnet, right around the time in which this movie is set.

What’s truly miraculous about Hail, Caesar! is the way that it balances, pitch-perfect at all times, on the knife-edge between corny hommage and wicked send-up, teetering but never quite tumbling into camp. It’s sort of meta insofar as the Coens adopt the larger-than-life aesthetic that they’re in the process of dissecting, shooting the movie on film (hardly ever done anymore) with a visual lushness that evokes the days of Technicolor and Cinemascope while employing the technical tricks of today’s movie trade. In their able hands, Hail, Caesar! looks and feels most convincingly like Hollywood’s giddiest dream of itself.  It’s a frothy, silly, delight-filled reminder of why we still keep being lured out into the night, away from our mesmerizing small screens and handheld devices, to go to the cinema.

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