Like many cinephiles, I’m fascinated by the old Hollywood studio system. The so-called Golden Age of Hollywood seemed to be, simultaneously, both the best and worst time to make movies. Stars were contract players who made to be in a certain number of movies per year, writers were paid nothing but expected to write (and rewrite) everything, massive amounts of movies were getting made at the same time, with money lying around as far as the eye could see. The 1940s and ’50s were when people made “pic-chas” instead of movies and the Coen Bros. chose these hazy halcyon days for their newest film Hail, Caesar!, a pic-cha full of the splendor and strangeness of the time itself.
The trailers for Hail, Caesar! don’t really do the film much justice, because they’re all about the plot. The movie is highly uninterested in telling a single narrative; rather it is more concerned with a million plots, like spokes on a tire all revolving around a single peg — in this case Capitol Pictures’ Head of Physical Production Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). Mannix has the unenviable duty to make sure everything in the busy studio is running smoothly at all times, while the boss sits in his New York City office, unseen. Mannix is forced to get his hands dirty sometimes for the good of the studio, but ultimately he seems quite capable and people respect him.
The other people in the story are lunatics in the best way possible. Big star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is making the titular Roman epic when he’s drugged and kidnapped by a “study group” who likes to talk about the Body Politic; synchronized swimming starlet DeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is getting too big for her mermaid costume because she got knocked up out of wedlock and the public can’t know; singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is being made to change his image and is asked to star in a very talky romantic drama directed by the fastidious Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes); and a pair of twin gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton) want the scoop on where Baird Whitlock’s been all day. It’s a bit of a madhouse.
And this is why I think Hail, Caesar! works so brilliantly: it’s a movie about not just movies, but about a very specific time in movies. A great deal of screentime is spent watching scenes from these movies being filmed. You’ve probably seen the clips of Channing Tatum’s Gene Kelly-inspired song-and-dance man wearing a sailor suit. That’s a whole scene in the movie of another movie being filmed, and it’s amazing we get to see the whole thing. Each of these little vignettes is reproduced perfectly to suit the style in which they were made in the early-50s, and an astounding amount of plot and character are actually revealed during these moments.
In the character of Eddie Mannix — based on the real MGM fixer of the same name (a much more violent, seedy sort of guy) — we have a hero who is both sure of his abilities and unsure of his resolve. He goes to confession once a day and admits to incredibly minor infractions as if they are horrible things. He’s being pursued for a cushy corporate job away from Hollywood and he’s unsure if he ought to take it, even though, on paper, it’s loads better. But there’s something about the work itself being important, which really cements him as a great central figure amid all these other great characters.
Quite a few big name people are only in this movie for one or two scenes, but that’s part of the fun. It’s seeing how everything fits together and how Mannix could possibly manage all of it, which the Coens embody through repeated shots of his wristwatch as the time ticks away. But it does, because in the end they aren’t selling reality, they’re selling the magic and glitz of pic-chas, and it’s the same for the Coens themselves. This isn’t a movie about what really happened; it’s about putting in everything we know about Classic Hollywood in a single, hilarious package.
Images: Universal Pictures
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!