Joel and Ethan Coen make a welcome and long-awaited return to comedy with “Hail, Caesar!,” a slap-happy valentine to the Technicolor heyday of Hollywood that lands somewhere between the trippy brilliance of “The Big Lebowski” and the goofball parable of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”. It is a lighthearted yarn that goes down easy like the old-fashioned popcorn pictures it so lovingly spoofs. Theirs is not Golden Age Hollywood as it was, it’s Golden Age Hollywood as we imagine it to have been.
As always, the Coens have assembled an impressive ensemble cast; and, as is often the case with their comedies, the plot is a piece of absurdist machinery designed to maneuver a bizarre array of misfit characters, who are the real draw here.
The movie is set mostly on the back lot of fictional Capitol Pictures, in Hollywood circa 1951. Moving throughout the goings on like a shark in a mid-life crisis is a fictionalized version of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a “fixer” who keeps the stars out of the tabloids and the cameras rolling on the studio’s various productions.
It is by no means easy: Over the next 24 hours he’ll have to cast B-grade singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Eherenreich) in a drawing room romance by fussy auteur director Laurence Laurentz (a sublimely funny Ralph Fiennes); arrange for unmarried Esther Williams-esque starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) to adopt her own unborn child (you read that right); and fend off twin sister gossip columnists Thessaly and Thora Thacker (Tilda Swinton times two).
To further complicate matters, Capitol’s megastar, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), has disappeared from the set of the studio’s prestige picture Hail, Caesar! with major scenes left to be shot. Whitlock has been kidnapped by an oddball group of eggheads and blacklisted writers who call themselves The Future. (Think “Trumbo” by way of “Brazil”).
Cinematography god-among-mortals Roger Deakins, who photographed “Skyfall,” “Sicario,” and all but two of the Brothers’ feature films (“Burn After Reading,” “Inside Llewyn Davis”), does a fantastic job of recreating the Technicolor feel of 1950s-era Hollywood. Their perennial costumer, Mary Zophres, and production designer Jess Gonchor cement the movie’s authentic look and feel.
The movie is ultimately an actor’s vehicle, and Hail, Caesar!’s cast goes for broke with the material. Brolin is the lone (and endearing) straight man in a parade of eccentrics, and the perfect for them. He’s fierce on the job, but he’s an insecure mess who exhausts his priest by giving Confession on a daily basis, usually in the wee hours.
Clooney, a supporting player despite what the trailers would have us believe, pokes a little fun at his leading man status as a clueless, poor-man’s Charlton Heston. Swinton makes us wish for a film entirely about her feuding characters. Johansson is in only a couple of scenes, but makes the most of every second. There is a score of character actors and cameo appearances filling every scene.
However, it’s Ehrenreich who steals the movie. He fully nails Doyle’s guileless, aw-shucks charm hide a cagier man that many underestimate. A scene between Ehrenreich and Fiennes on the set of Laurentz’s potboiler is arguably the movie’s high point. (Imagine Douglas Sirk having to direct a Tex Ritter knock-off and you get the idea.) A close second is Channing Tatum’s song-and-dance sequence, which starts off as a spoof of Gene Kelly before subverting itself with some well-placed homo-eroticism.
In the end it may be a little too meta and insidery for some, but there’s an exuberance to it all that sweeps one along. Big and absurd, it works like a charm, and it delivers with style.