At the movies: ‘Hail, Caesar!’
Special to the Tribune
* * * * (A)
Directed By Ethan and Joel Coen
Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton
Universal, Rated PG-13, Comedy, 100 minutes
Oh the Golden Years of Hollywood. Or were they? Rather than answer that hotly debated question, the Coen Brothers take us inside a large Hollywood movie studio, circa 1951.
Through the eyes of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio exec known as the Fixer, we’re shown what it takes to make the studio machine hum. If a star is pregnant and unmarried, Eddie smooths over her indelicate situation. He prevents a gossip columnist (Tilda Swinton) from revealing that a major star got his start on the casting couch. He makes a choosey director accept and mentor a leading man, miscast in a drawing-room drama.
Eddie is working to resolve these and a handful of other routine issues when Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of “Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ,” is kidnapped from his dressing room. Known for going on raucous benders in the company of young actresses, a ransom note demanding $100,000 finally clues Eddie in.
Meanwhile, Baird believes he’s simply passed out in his Roman soldier costume, before awakening at a well-appointed beach house at a gathering replete with cocktail sandwiches and a lively discussion regarding movie studio productions made to placate the masses.
Cutting between the trials of Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), an acrobatic, singing cowboy, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), a hedonistic synchronized swimming star whose dewy innocence is her calling card, Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) an overly-refined, florid British director, and Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) a macho song-and-dance man whose sexual preferences are hush hush — Eddie fixes and finesses each studio hiccup.
His most upsetting quandary involves the military contractor doggedly courting Eddie’s trouble-shooting talents. Phone calls and meetings reveal that the contract this employer is offering to Eddie will set him up for life. Yet, despite the crazy hours and his many thankless tasks, Eddie loves his job. One reason he does it so brilliantly is that Eddie is a true believer in the patriarchal system he represents.
The Coen’s Brothers add interest by including scenes from various movies starring the actors Eddie both helps and orders around — all original setpieces lovingly assembled and superbly crafted.
Francis McDormand, as a chain-smoking film editor, and Heather Goldenhersh, as Eddie’s on-the-ball secretary, depict the subordinate status relegated to efficient female underlings.
Populated by a diverse cast of characters, the bouncy plot showcases a number of interesting relationships and world views. For the film to work, each character must be seen to accept his place in the system and trust that powers greater than themselves are pulling the strings for everyone’s benefit. If Hollywood is the religion, then we are its true believers. Can I get an Amen?