The film follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men, True Grit), a head of physical production of a major Hollywood studio in the early fifties called Capitol Pictures. It happens to have the same name as the studio that hired Barton Fink in the Coens 1991 Palme d’or winner where as you may remember ‘the writer is king’. This character is based on a real-life fixer/enforcer that had to keep everyone in line at MGM and was portrayed by Bob Hoskins in the film Hollywoodland (2006) that deals with the suicide (or murder) of his wife’s lover and apparently was a much tougher persona than the way he’s being depicted in Hail, Caesar!.
In those days the fim studios were movie factories with the biggest stars all under contract. Mannix has to deal with the day to day problems of the multiple shoots that are in production. There’s an Esther Williams Busby Burkely-like ‘aqua musical’ with a pregnant star (Scarlet Johansson, The Man Who Wasn’t There) that has difficulties getting in and out of a one piece mermaid swimsuit. A Roy Rogers type western with a singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich, who also resembles Audie Murphy somewhat) A musical starring sailors (Anchors Aweigh, On the Town) with Channing Tatum in a Gene Kelly kind of mode. And last but not least a ‘prestigious’ biblical film called Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ (a nod to the Fred Niblo 1925 silent version of Ben Hur) with a drunk lead actor who tends to show up late (George Clooney, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty, Burn After Reading). This time though he happens to be kidnapped of the set by a group of communist writers called ‘The Future’ who are looking for some ransom money.
Mannix needs to keep this and more from reaching the tabloids, especially with the gossip columnist Tackery twin sisters (a double role for Tilda Swinton, Burn After Reading) on his tail, clearly referring to Hedda hopper (played herself in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard) and Louella Parsons. In the meantime he’s having a ‘crisis of faith’ and starts questioning his professional choices.
The Coens in their typical anarchist fashion are tackling some ‘serious’ topics without giving them the so-called ‘proper respect’ but in the meantime are still delving deeper than directors that do take themselves too seriously. They are just not taking anything too seriously, just wish this approach was wider spread. This film in particualr may be more of an acquired taste. It does help if you know the films and ‘historical events’ which are being lovingly mocked. There are so many inside jokes and references that probably much might get lost if you don’t.
E.g. the scene where Christopher Lambert (playing a European director) and Josh Brolin are discussing the problems with his ex DeeAnne, the Scarlet Johansson character, plays fine on it self, but if you know that both Lambert and Brolin in real-life are ex husbands of actress Diane Lane there’s just that bit extra to say the least. And the film has plenty of such moments.
The film -as is the case with all the Coen brothers films- is technically brilliant with many longtime collaborators (dop Roger Deakins, composer Carter Burwell, sound genious Skip Leavsy, to name but a few) doing their usual great work. The Coens writing, casting (Fellini and Leone would be jealous with the character faces they were able to gather for this production), editing, …, well what can you say.
Among the many highlights: Mannix trying to get the blessing from the religious leaders on the depiction of Christ in the script and the resulting discussion between a priest, a rabbi, a Presbyterian and Orthodox minister.
The musical numbers (the Coens have done musical numbers before in their films such as the dream sequence in The Big Lebowski. The KKK gathering in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is defenitely their most irreverent musical number to date), the scene in the editing room with Frances McDormand. The “Would that it were so simple” scene where Ralph Fiennes plays a George Cukor inspired refined ‘women’s director’ should have gone on for ever.
Audiences may be dissappointed that some of their favorite actors are getting fewer screentime than the billing would suggest. It was definitely a marketing campaign mistake to give Jonah Hill such a top billing for what’s basically a blink and you’ll miss him cameo appearence (even more disgraceful than the Meryl Streep Suffragette one).