“Squint! Squint against the grandeur!” so the film director can be heard offscreen during a series of dailies, which unspool in a Hollywood Studio screening room midway through Hail, Caesar! If the Coen Brothers did not definitively poke their finger in the eye of the crass factory of dreams that is tinsel town in Barton Fink, they take another look, albeit a more broader and effervescent one, at the foibles of making pictures in the late 1940s. Considering they use the same fictional studio, Capitol Pictures (“Where the writer is king!”) one might think of their latest as the loosest of sequels to that 1991 Cannes winning film. More interestingly, Hail, Caesar! is a playfully spiteful grab-bag of in-jokes in old Hollywood and the own eclectic filmography.
Josh Brolin is Eddie Mannix, Capitol Pictures’ executive producer, problem solver, and media fixer, a character loosely based on the real man of the same name, who served the same function for MGM (and was thought to be complicit in the death of the original on-screen Superman, George Reeves.) The Coen’s give us an exceptionally busy 27 hours in the life of Mannix, the span of time between two Catholic confessions, where the devoutly converted catholic obsesses over the minutiae of his marriage and personal life, while compartmentalizing, and fully omitting, the myriad of sins of his profession.
A job that entails supervising four movies being shot on the studio lot, all plagued by problems in their own unique ways. The sword-and-sandals, ‘Jesus Picture’ star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, sillier than ever – an injoke reminiscent of Steve Buscemi’s ever decreasing mortal remains in the Coenography) is missing, and the gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton, both underused), the sailor tap-dancing musical has an alarming case of closeted gayness (and a wonderful cameo from the Highlander frenchman, Christopher Lambert), the Busby Berkeley mermaid picture has a star (Scarlett Johannson, in a glorious Noo Yawk accent) and whose fish tail is getting more ill-fitting by the hour due to a pregnancy scandal about to break, and a Euro-flavoured drawing-room melodrama has been saddled with an aw-shucks singing cowboy leading man (Alden Ehrenreich in a breakout performance) who is far, far out of his depth.
Mannix navigates this shifting sea of apocalyptic problems (at one point, a mushroom cloud is presented on screen in the manner of The Hudsucker Proxies‘ Hula-Hoop), strung together by the Coens with their penchant for noir-ish plots, with an almost savant-like talent that is the antithesis of both the Dude, Jeff Bridges’ boozy and drugged flailing in The Big Lebowski, or Billy Bob Throton’s Ed Crane, the quietly ambitious Barber in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Whitlock’s kidnapping is abetted by both by a spiked drink and a dry cleaning truck, so they are clearly nodding to both, while demonstrating there are so many orthogonal directions to take neo-noir that the surface has only been scratched in the past 75 years.
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