The Coen brothers’ recent film, “Hail, Caesar!” is a pure rollicking delight, their funniest and sweetest film in years.
A loving send-up of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood in the late 40s and early 50s, it is a film that can be enjoyed by the whole family on so many different levels.
Those were the days when the studio system churned out biblical Ben Hur-type epics with a cast of thousands; song and dance musicals starring Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire; cheesy aquatic dance numbers with Esther Williams; singing cowboy flicks with Gene Autry; and snooty Joan Crawford/Loretta Young New York Upper East Side melodramas.
In “Hail, Caesar!” the Coens brilliantly recreate set pieces from all these genres, but with their signature off the wall, quirky sense of humour.
However, the film is much much more than a an exercise in nostalgia.
On a deeper level, it subtly tackles larger themes of religion, faith, duty, ethics, morality and the influence of art on life and life on art.
The Coens also slyly take a dig at liberal Hollywood icons like George Clooney (who is one of the actual stars of “Hail, Ceasar!”)
The simple plot centers on a day in the life of a film executive and fixer, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) of Capitol Pictures.
This fictional Capitol Pictures is the same studio that seduced an idealistic New York playwright, played by John Turturro, in the Coen brothers’ first Hollywood-centered flick, “Barton Fink.”
Part film noir, part horror flick, “Barton Fink” was influenced by Nathaniel West’s “Day of the Locust” and Polanski’s “Repulsion”, and exposed the Hollywood dream factory as a hellish destination where artistic and creative careers and dreams are shot down in flames, both literally and figuratively.
Fast forward to 2016. Many wonderful Coen films later, the film industry, for all its weirdness, deception and shallowness, has been kind to the Coen brothers, who have clearly mellowed. In “Hail, Caesar!” their satire is still biting and at times edgy, but also joyful and lots of fun.
Eddie Mannix is a devout Catholic, a family man and true believer in God, country and Hollywood. One of the movie’s best running jokes is that Mannix is constantly seeking absolution from his exasperated father confessor, for such venal sins as sneaking cigarettes and lying to his wife. But there is something greater at play.
On a a deeper level, Mannix is conflicted. He loves his work — which is essentially keeping the Hollywood dream factory running smoothly, churning out fluff and idealized illusions, while backstage, he’s dealing with all kinds of sleazy, corrupt and potentially soul-destroying shite.
The Coens take us behind the painted-on backdrops, fake cityscapes and the constant turmoil among the imperfect stars and extras. We see more sausage factory than dream factory.
From this chaos, dreams and memorable images are created. But Mannix can’t help asking himself, is this what his life is all about?
For example, we see Mannix breaking up a soft core photo shoot involving a seemingly virtuous starlet, and bribing police to keep her name out of the gossip mags.
Then he deals with a twice married, bitchy, pregnant Esther Williams type (Scarlett Johansson), by arranging the handoff of her baby to a fake foster parent, then the re-adoption of her own child by the Esther character. (This actually happened, by the way.)
All the while, Mannix is trying to avoid Thora and Thessaly Thatcher, the competitive twin sister gossip columnists ( channeling Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper), both played hysterically by Coen regular Tilda Swinton.
It appears Thora wants to expose how Capitol Pictures’s box office star and matinee idol, Baird Whitlock, (George Clooney) won his first role by doing the horizontal tango with his male director, precious and prissy Shakespearian-trained director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). (Shades of Rock Hudson.)
And Thessaly has heard that Whitlock, playing a Roman tribune in the time of Jesus Christ, is now missing in action from the massive set of the Ben Hur-like biblical epic movie-within-a-movie, also titled “Hail, Caesar!”
On top of everything else, the Coens involve Mannix in three great set pieces that in themselves are worth the price of admission.
One is Mannix leading a focus group of four different religious leaders reviewing the depiction of the deity in the studio’s biblical epic. This exchange is one of the funniest Coen scenes ever.
The other marvelously funny two scenes are a Gene Kelly-like sailor-themed tap dancing routine with a blazing homoerotic subtext, and an attempt to turn singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into a black-tie matinee idol.