Review: The Coens use ‘Hail, Caesar!’ to take a silly but smart look at Hollywood’s soul

As I was driving home from talking to Joel and Ethan Coen about their latest film, I called my parents, laughing about the way the film folds Hollywood truth into Hollywood fiction. I mentioned that the Loretta Young story was an obvious inspiration for one thread of the film, and my parents seemed confused by the reference. They knew who Loretta Young was, no doubt, but they had never heard the defining story of her personal life because back when Young was still an active movie star, my parents were part of the audience who were protected from the truth to help keep those movie star images squeaky-clean.

Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin, is officially listed as the Head of Physical Production for Capitol Studios, but what he really does is handle problems. He's a fixer. And there was an actual Eddie Mannix who worked for MGM. If you remember Hollywoodland, Mannix was a major figure in the mystery surrounding the death of George Reeves. He was a legendary and ruthless fixer, but the Mannix who appears in Hail, Caesar!, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is very different than the real person. Hyper-worried about sin, constantly confessing to his priest, and devoted to his family, Mannix spends his days putting out fires, and as Hail, Caesar! begins, he's got plenty on his plate. They're deep into production on a Biblical epic (also called Hail, Caesar!) that is the studio's big film for the year, but for Eddie, work days can start in the middle of the night, like when he has to extricate a contracted starlet from a nudie photo shoot.

While Hail, Caesar! is the Coens working in a deeply silly mode, one of the things that has always been true about their work is that even when they are silly, there are more thematic things going on under the surface than are immediately apparent. In some ways, this is a sideways slide into the same conversation that the movie Trumbo hoped to spark, but the Coens are crafty. Instead of creating an earnest drama about the blacklist, they've found a way to make a movie about the way everyone in Hollywood wore more than one face, and how much reputation existed as a currency, allowing some people to do awful things while projecting images of purity and righteousness. Mannix believes in the images he's responsible for protecting, even if he is disappointed by the people behind them, and the film is about one good man fighting to keep that dream alive in the face of a constant assault from basic human nature.

And did I mention that it's silly? Because it is. George Clooney plays Baird Whitlock, and within the Hail, Caesar! that is being made during Hail, Caesar!, he's the Roman centurion guard who meets Jesus on the road to Rome. It's basically Ben-Hur, and Whitlock is basically Charlton Heston. He's that kind of sturdy manly '50s movie star, and if you imagine Clooney as Heston, the film gets funnier and funnier as it goes. The Coens, along with their frequent collaborators Jess Gonchor, Roger Deakins, and Carter Burwell, have a great time recreating a very specific era of Hollywood, and it's artificial from the first frame to the last, which is part of what makes it so very beautiful. There's a musical number that they use to introduce Burt Gurney, played by Channing Tatum, that is perfectly shot by Deakins, perfectly choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, and perfectly performed by Tatum and the other dancers. It demonstrates an innate understanding of the era and of why those films made during that time were special. It's also absolutely absurd in the little flourishes and details that make it more than just an empty homage.

Whitlock is kidnapped from the set of the film and the why and the who of it is part of the larger game the Coens are playing here. I'm fascinated by the way kidnapping is a running thread throughout their films like Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, and Fargo, and by the way it ends up serving to reveal characters. Here, Whitlock comes to a sort of enlightenment because of his abduction, while the kidnappers themselves are barely characters at all. The kidnapping is simply an excuse to pile extra stress onto Mannix, who is facing a decision about his own life and career, and the film is ultimately about which version of that choice he makes. By virtue of the pace of the film, and the way Mannix is constantly running from one fire to another to put each of them out, it's a big cast playing quick and hilarious moments. Scarlett Johansson scores in her brief moments onscreen, Ralph Fiennes is breathtakingly funny, and Tilda Swinton is doubly delicious in a very clever bit of casting. Frances McDormand's appearance as C.C. Calhoun, one of the studio's editors, is terrific, but while it's a very funny scene, her appearance is a reminder that much of Hollywood's true story was built on the backs of women who worked at the technical crafts while getting little or no public respect.

The big discovery of the movie for me was Alden Ehrenreich, who plays Hobie Doyle, a singing cowboy star who gets pressed into playing a role in a sophisticated comedy of manners. He's been in a number of films, but this is that moment where he finally connects with a role that shows him off in the best possible light. He's very funny, and when he goes out on a studio-sanctioned date with young starlet Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio), he's enormously winning. Like Mannix, he's presented as a rare beacon of decency, someone who simply kept falling upwards by virtue of his good nature. He is who he presents himself to be, onscreen and off. He is willing to try anything for the studio because he's grateful and he's aware that he is lucky. He is, quite literally, the least of Mannix's problems.

Like many of the films the Coens make, there is a deceptive simplicity to this, and while it felt in some ways slight when I saw it, the more I've thought about it, the more I like it. The Hollywood of Hail, Caesar! doesn't exist anymore, but that distance between who we are and who we tell the world we are is something that's universal, and even when they're silly, Joel and Ethan Coen are as smart as any filmmakers working, and Hail, Caesar! is a clever cartoon filter through which they examine some very sincere spiritual ideas.

Hail, Caesar! is in theaters on Friday.