Part of the reason movie geeks love the Coen Brothers so much is that they are so clearly and audibly One Of Us. They love genre play, tinkering with tropes, homages, and in-jokes (see O Brother, Where Art Thou?); a well-versed film nerd can run down their filmography and tell you who they were paying tribute to in this one or that, and probably nail it with a fair degree of accuracy. Their new comedy Hail, Caesar! is only their second film explicitly about Hollywood – but to some degree, nearly every Coen Brothers movie is about movies. And Caesar is, among other things, a valentine to cinema, full of shout-outs and Easter eggs that will delight the TCM Party crowd.
And it gives Josh Brolin his best role since – well, since No Country For Old Men. He plays Eddie Mannix, head of physical production for Capitol Pictures (the same name given to their fictional studio in their previous inside-Hollywood picture, Barton Fink), and the inside jokes start with his very name; in “real life,” Eddie Mannix worked for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where his official title was general manager but he was best known as a “fixer,” protecting the studio’s stars from bad press and cleaning up their messes, which Brolin’s Mannix does a fair amount of as well. Mannix’s story was told in a recent episode of You Must Remember This, the “tales of classic Hollywood” podcast whose listeners will delight in the numerous echoes and avatars generously sprinkled through the Coens’ story; Capitol Pictures is clearly modeled on MGM (Mannix begins every morning with a call to Nick Schenck in New York), and scattered throughout the picture are characters with at least passing similarities to sibling gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Luella Parsons (both played, magnificently, by Tilda Swinton), Esther Williams, Carmen Miranda, and John Wayne, among others.
But most prominently, and most deliciously, the film’s “day in the life of a studio executive” structure allows the Coens to have a great time staging scenes from Capitol’s in-production pictures. So, for stretches, Caesar plays like a Kentucky Fried Movie-style sketch movie (or, if you’d prefer something newer and artsier, like the Coens’ Forbidden Room), with the modest plot paused at will for elaborate, affectionate send-ups of B Westerns, tap musicals, Busby Berkeley-style dance numbers, drawing-room comedies, and biblical epics. And that attentiveness to detail extends to the framing story – with the old band back together (Roger Deakins as cinematographer, Carter Burwell as composer, “Roderick Jaynes” aka the Coens as editor), the picture looks, sounds, and feels like a movie not just set in the early 1950s, but made then.
What it never quite does is coalesce into a cohesive whole. The sense of dropping in to different movies extends a bit more than it should into the wraparound story; the screwball snap of square-jawed, tough-growling Brolin’s scenes goes slack when he’s off-screen, and that’s the speed where this movie – and, in most instances, the Coens – plays best. (Full disclosure: I may’ve just been unreasonably wistful for another Hudsucker Proxy.) The uncertainty of the pacing extends to the storytelling, which haphazardly attempts to rope in a singing cowboy’s transition into a “dinner jacket” leading man, a bathing beauty’s inconvenient pregnancy, and an oafish leading man’s kidnapping by Communist screenwriters, with sporadic narration by Michael Gambon to (not always successfully) smooth out the bumpy transitions. And the crowded cast has its unfortunate casualties – Jonah Hill and Frances McDormand, for example, make impressions, but both are wasted in one-scene, one-joke roles.
Yet it’s also worth noting and appreciating Hail, Caesar!’s unexpected ambition; it is, among other things, an exploration of the blacklist that’s not explicitly about the blacklist (and, it’s probably unnecessary to note, one that’s about 30 times more effective than Trumbo); a charming snapshot of the arranged relationships among studio players; and, most surprising of all, the Coens’ most thoughtful examination of religious matters this side of A Serious Man. Such lofty goals don’t quite elevate the blackout-sketch quality at which most of the picture operates (and, frankly, excels), but they’ll keep viewers on their toes. It is, all in all, mid-level Coens. But as so many others have noted, mid-level Coens still tops most other filmmakers at their peak.
Hail, Caesar! is out Friday in wide release.