'Hail, Caesar!' Review: The Coen Brothers Are Here to Remind You How to Have Fun at the Movies
There are a lot of reasons why you may be looking forward to seeing Hail, Caesar! You may be a Coen Brothers fan, and excitedly anticipate everything they put out. You may have seen the trailer and thought this looked like the best romp in recent Hollywood history. Or maybe, just maybe, you’ve spent the last year or so sharing our new obsession around these parts: the amazing podcast You Must Remember This. If not— and especially if you see this movie and it leaves you wanting more Old Hollywood stories and scandal— you’re definitely not missing out on any part of Hail, Caesar! But if you are a fan of “the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century,” you may be going in excited to see these Hollywood stories brought to life in all their crazy salacious glory. You may also be wondering how this comedy will tackle the simultaneous darkness of these stories. And boy did Mannix have his share of deep, deep darkness.
So how do they tackle that darkness? The only way the Coen brothers know how: with lightness. One that is jarringly, perfectly off-kilter.
Eddie Mannix was the name of a real Hollywood “fixer,” though this is not a fact-based biopic by any means. Rather, Joel and Ethan Coen have taken a fascinating man with a fascinating and morally and ethically complicated job— a job which he was VERY good at, too good at maybe— and put him at the center of a farce. We may not see the darkest jobs the real Mannix had to “fix” (like, as his podcast episode tells us, covering up the rape of studio employees by higher-up studio employees), but we do see him covering up sex scandals and judging himself for not being the man he wants to be. The opening scene of the movie shows us Mannix (Josh Brolin) in a confessional at 4 a.m., asking for forgiveness for sneaking cigarettes and lying to his wife who has asked him to give up smoking. This is our Mannix: a man who will strike a starlet or deliver a suitcase of cash if the job calls for it, but genuinely wants to be an honest person.
Mannix and his ethics are at the center of the movie, and they do ground us. But the real joy is circling him, a frenzy of real, in the cut-up-iest meaning of the word, characters. We have George Clooney as Baird Whitlock, a fictional figure, but as iconic a movie star as you could ever dream up. Whitlock is a glamorous but simple doof who allows Clooney to really let his eyebrow acting run free. When he’s kidnapped off the set of Hail, Caesar!, one of many movies within this movie, it sets off Mannix’s big chain of events in trying to get him back. Though, if Baird were just a smidge brighter, maybe he could at least realize he’d been kidnapped in the first place.
Also in Mannix’s stable of fixer-uppers is DeeAnna Moran (a truly sensational Scarlett Johansson), a huge star who’s built her career on playing the beloved ingenue in a mermaid tail, surrounded by synchronized swimmers. When Moran finds herself pregnant and unwed (Mannix has already annulled two of her marriages, by the way, and she’s not interested in a third), it’s just more trouble Eddie has to put right.
Other players that stop by for a bit, whirling around, making trouble include Tilda Swinton as a gossip columnist looking to scoop a damaging story about Whitlock. Actually, Swinton plays TWO gossip columnists, rival sisters. That’s right, TWO TILDAS. Channing Tatum is also a bit of a peripheral character, not showing up until the halfway mark. When he does, though, you’ll know the answer to the question you never knew you needed to ask: What would Magic Mike be like if instead of lap dancing, there was tap dancing in chippy sailor suits? The answer, obviously, is PURE DELIGHT.
Finally, if anything could be better than Channing Tatum tap dancing through broken pretzels, it’s Alden Ehrenreich’s Hobie Doyle. You may not know Ehrenreich’s name, but if we all don’t soon, I’ll buy a hat and eat it. That’s a promise. Hobie is a mega movie star, but his talent lies in INCREDIBLE cowboy stunts. When the studio decided to rebrand him, though, they send him into a Broadway-adapted period piece. It’s hard to tell which is more endearing, his doltishness or his earnestness, but in combination, they will melt your heart in the most hilarious way. Especially when the studio pairs him with Carlotta Valdez (a Vertigo nod, perhaps), a Carmen Miranda type the studio is also trying to rebrand. The two are pawns of their industry, human chattel, and the setup of their date is a brilliant window into the gross impersonal workings of the old studio system. However, their chemistry ends up being so through-the-roof that if not for the aforementioned tap dancing, it might have been the best scene of the whole movie.
Hail, Caesar! is everything you could want from a Coen Brothers comedy. It’s consistently hilarious, with constant high-paced, nearly vaudevillian banter, and just dark and twisted enough to give it some solid oomph. With all the characters whirling and getting all the screen time their stories and their charisma deserve, it’s amazing the movie doesn’t drag on for eternity. Though at only 106 minutes, it may actually leave you wanting more. The film probably (definitely) made the right choice in keeping things tight and brief, but that’s because the best parts are the peripherals. Mannix, with all of his complexities at the center of this story, may actually be the weakest part of it. His story isn’t bad or boring, but if any part of the movie is going to fade from you memory, it may be him. Still, the flurry of supporting craziness is more than enough to make this one of the most straight-up FUN movies of recent history. Remember what it’s like to have fun in a movie theater? Turns out, it’s pretty great.
Vivian Kane is going to dream of tap shoes and sailor hats all weekend long.
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