The Coen Brothers’ latest comedy “Hail, Caesar!” is a loving tribute to the era of classical Hollywood, meticulously crafted with layers of reference, inside jokes, and tidbits of history that will excite any film buff. Not to fret if you haven’t caught up with every episode of the Hollywood history podcast “You Must Remember This” (although you should), “Hail, Caesar!” is every bit as fun and entertaining regardless of whether you’re picking up on every true life tale. The Coens have created a film that is at once a meta commentary on Hollywood’s studio system, while also indulging in the pure pleasure of visual spectacle that marked many films of this period.
With a star-studded cast, “Hail, Caesar!” belongs primarily to Josh Brolin, who plays Eddie Mannix, a studio fixer at Capitol Pictures. The real Eddie Mannix was a studio fixer at MGM Studios from the 1920s to 1940s, but that’s where the obvious biographical element ends. The stars with whom Brolin’s Mannix tangles are lightly fictionalized mashups of real celebrities, with scrambled personal histories. Scarlett Johansson’s DeAnna Moran is an Esther Williams-esque swimming superstar, with a Brooklyn accent to beat the best, and a pregnancy pickle to rival Loretta Young’s.
The film follows a day in the life of manic Mannix, as he rushes around the lot, putting out fires big and small. The biggest involves Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the Biblical epic “Hail, Caesar!” who’s been drugged and kidnapped by a shadowy organization known as the Future (consider the paranoia of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, and you might be able to hazard a guess as to the Future’s motives). The group of nefarious, nebbishy intellectuals are a classic Coen bunch of deadpan delights.
While Mannix tries to scare up a ransom for Whitlock, he’s also working on the career trajectory of country-fried cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), and his love life; battling off the twin terrors of gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton); and trying to contain DeAnna’s increasingly troubling ambiguous marital status. “Hail, Caesar!” while poking fun at old Hollywood, pays tribute as well, by yielding to its sheer entertainment. The film often pauses for a moment of spectacle: a series of cowboy tricks, a Busby Berkeley-style water ballet, and a showstopping musical number by a bunch of randy sailors led by scene-stealer Channing Tatum as Bert Gurney.
There are arch levels of irony in looking back on the golden age with hindsight, but this is coupled with moments of real subversiveness too. There are layers of meaning that you could burrow inside and analyze for days, but the film doesn’t require that for it to be entertaining. The humor runs high-brow and low, with jokes about Marxism existing side by side with goofball physical comedy. Somehow, “Hail, Caesar!” manages to be both a love letter to and a gentle skewering of Hollywood’s studio system, a wildly entertaining romp through history that also keenly reflects its present.
Rated: PG-13 for moments of mild language, violence and sensuality. Starring: George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson. Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen. Running time: 100 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 9, Edwards 14, Majestic 18, Village Cinema.