by Ken Bakely
They called him a fixer. His name was Eddie Mannix, and he was indispensable. Up through the 1950s, amid the studio era, the stars were direct employees of a film studio, and so it was within that company’s interests to control the public and private aspects of their lives. But wealth and fame make it hard to behave, and so whenever a celebrity stepped out of line or became involved in a scandal of some kind, somebody like Mannix would come in, disguise the dirty secrets, and make sure the sordid facts never saw the light of day.
In Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar!, a fictionalized version of Eddie Mannix is played by Josh Brolin. He’s got a world of duties around him, but his main challenge is overseeing the production of a big, historical epic, suitably called Hail, Caesar!, which is draining the studio’s resources. The star of the picture is named Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), both influential and easily influenced. The movie is going to be a big, big deal, and everything is riding on its success. But one day, Baird is kidnapped by a group of blacklisted writers. The ransom is one hundred thousand dollars. The scribes plan to use the cash in an effort to defect to the Soviet Union, and holding Baird up at a beach house in Malibu, try to bring them over to their cause. Eddie isn’t very concerned about getting the money together, but the devil is in the details. How can this handover be pulled off without any fallout? The clock is ticking for an easy return, and the eccentric denizens of the studio lot lead to a fair degree of quirky sidetracking.
Hail, Caesar! is a movie which has a lot going on. There are a lot of characters, wrapped up in a lot of story threads, and they all pull around, at times only perfunctorily related. The script feels like it was written without an outline, as if the Coens were forced to beat out the story as they went along, and eventually told to shoot that particular draft. A number of amusing individuals, including twin sisters who are rival gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton), are only given a couple of scenes to shine. They have their moments of comic brightness, but disappear, never to be seen again.
At times, Hail, Caesar! resembles a hodgepodge of loosely related episodes brutally carved into a 108 minute omnibus package. A few moments on the lot, a few moments at the Malibu beachouse to detail the “kidnapping”, then a few moments from the production of a movie. It’s a relentlessly choppy structure. You get a few good gags here and there, but never anything fully fluid and satisfying. The dialogue doesn’t click or land in the same way that it does on the Coens’ best works. Entire subplots drift off and are instantly forgettable. You feel like you’re watching something that isn’t quite ready, as if there’s still a half-hour of material that hasn’t been added in yet or a half-hour which is about to be taken out. As is, the film lives for the visual jokes and the thick banter, but never the story.
But what works is the mood. This is a remarkably light, far-flung comedy, recalling the various staples of Hollywood’s golden age. Brolin is wonderfully dry as Eddie Mannix, pursuing even the most animated actions (such as slapping a grown man on the face repeatedly while reprimanding him) with utter deadpan finesse. Cinematographer Roger Deakins shoots a bright, colorful, and crisp universe. In that respect, a particularly enjoyable scene comes to mind, when energetic showman Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), leads a marvelous song-and-dance sequence. We see it as it is filmed on a soundstage, but the Coens are more than inclined to put their story on hold and show off their Gene Kelly homage. We as viewers don’t intrinsically mind, as the 106 minute film is entertaining when taken as a whole, thanks in part to events like these, but the plot at hand is often ignored.
There’s a strange underbelly underneath the madness, an attempt to deconstruct the zaniness on the surface and reveal the grimy, machiavellian politics of the industry underneath. Anyone who’s read about the Hollywood studio era knows that there is ripe material for a well-spun yarn. Hail, Caesar! appears to be aware of that truth as well, but never internally connects as a movie to the point of doing more than just poking around the more wooded trails. After all, the screwball comedy only works from scene to scene, and taken collectively, feels immensely underwhelming. Anything beyond that just feels like a cop-out.