George Clooney in 'Hail, Caesar!' Photo courtesy of NBCUniversal
Most long-running television shows, at some point, will fall back on that trusty trope known as the "clip show"—an episode that consists primarily of excerpts from previous episodes (Friends, for example, had six spread over its ten seasons). Joel and Ethan Coen have been making feature films about America and its oddball inhabitants for 32 years now, and their latest offering, Hail, Caesar!, feels like their own idiosyncratic riff on that format. It's an enjoyably meandering compendium of tics, references, and themes (particularly religion, fate, and the movies) culled from their impressive canon and marshaled into a surprisingly coherent, curiously haunting whole.
Hail, Caesar!'s setting is Hollywood circa 1951, and our main man is Eddie Mannix (a gruffly likable Josh Brolin), head of physical production at Capitol Pictures. He's also a "fixer," tasked with making problems disappear. Coen aficionados will recognize (the fictional) Capitol as the same studio that employed Barton Fink (John Turturro) as a screenwriter in the 1991 film of the same name, set roughly a decade earlier. The tortured Fink was the consummate outsider: a lefty, intellectual, East Coast playwright whose mind disintegrated under pressure from the demands of the mainstream machine. Mannix, unlike Fink, is an inside man, and (no need to ask) a smooth operator—having him as our central character makes for a more comfortable viewing experience than Barton Fink.However, Mannix also carries a weight on his shoulders: We first meet him in a confessional booth, where he bends the ear of his long-suffering Catholic priest about his failure to give up smoking, and his guilt at keeping the fact from his wife. In another amusing early scene, we see him focus-grouping with bickering religious leaders of different faiths about the best way to represent God onscreen—Mannix is, you see, supervising production on Hail, Caesar!, which is also the name of the main film-within-the-film, a big-budget yet chintzy-looking Biblical epic starring starring nice-but-dim matinee idol Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, in pleasingly self-effacing mode).
The plot, such as it is, kicks into gear when Whitlock is poisoned on set by an extra (a marvelously furtive cameo from Seinfeld alum Wayne Knight), then spirited away to a coastal hideout. Any fears we might have for Whitlock's safety are dispelled when we discover the identity of his captors: "The Future," a garrulous, genteel, kinda funny-lookin' group of Communist screenwriters clad in 50 shades of beige. As new film Trumbo highlights, the Hollywood anti-Communist blacklist, first established in 1947, was a very serious deal indeed, so the Coens' imagining of these earnest, banished men collecting by the sea is both surreal and oddly touching. Their ramshackle kidnap plan, meanwhile, is every bit as whimsical as the one woven through The Big Lebowski.The rest of the movie consists of a loosely interlocked series of vignettes peppered with eccentric characters. The constant is Mannix, whose predicament—that of a decent guy struggling to keep numerous plates spinning in the face of larger, unpredictable forces—recalls that which troubled Larry Gopnik, the protagonist of A Serious Man, a bleak comedy that transposed the Old Testament narrative of Job to the Minnesota suburbs of the 1960s.Instead of Larry's apocalyptic bad luck, however, Mannix must contend with some very human problems. He's under pressure to accept a job that would make his life easier but rob him of the challenges on which he thrives. He must deal with posh British director Laurence Laurentz (a hilariously flighty Ralph Fiennes), who is desperately unhappy with the casting of the new romantic lead in his film, pretty boy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a stuntman palpably uncomfortable with speaking roles. There's DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), an ingenue who sparkles in front of the cameras as a synchronized-swimming mermaid (wearing a "fish ass," as she bluntly puts it), but has a bewilderingly complicated personal life. And Mannix is also pestered by twin-sister journalists (Tilda Swinton, times two: haughty and haughtier) who threaten to undermine him in their own devious ways. Equally notable, by the way, is Michael Gambon as the embodiment of another classic Coen device: the unseen, omniscient (one might say godly) narrator. The Irish actor's stentorian purr is simultaneously authoritative, amused, and vaguely lascivious: a fitting tone-setter.Smartly edited by "Roderick Jaynes" (who doesn't exist: It's the Coens!), Hail, Caesar! moves at an easy but never draggy pace, and soars in sequences that invite viewers to lose themselves in the magic of the movies, only for the curtain to be pulled back, revealing the artifice. This trick is best exemplified in a wonderful soundstage sequence depicting the filming of a scene from fictional musical Swingin' Dinghy, starring hunky Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) as a tap-dancing sailor. While Gurney hoofs and hollers (rather tunefully) through a happily homoerotic seafaring shindig entitled "No Dames!", the Coens chop up the scene, cutting between how it would be viewed by a paying audience (i.e., as envisioned by its director, swaggeringly played by Christopher Lambert), and how they themselves see it: a mess of complicated set-ups by the camera crew. While doing so, the Coens also cleverly point us toward some sinister, plot-sensitive background details. In moments like these, the Coens' directorial prowess is dizzying, at once cerebral, emotional, and narratively propulsive.Hail, Caesar!'s tone is generally light, but, as in so much of the Coens' work, darkness loiters at the fringes. It uses the patina of flagrant, joyous artifice—and a cavalcade of well-judged star cameos—to mask a critique of shady dealing in the film industry, and cinema's enormous potential to operate simultaneously as an ideological weapon and a tool of suppression. On the shortcomings of the Hollywood "Dream Factory," it's not as vicious as, say, Robert Altman's The Player, or as luridly sour as David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. It is, however, a brilliant companion piece to Barton Fink, leaving the viewer with plenty to ponder once the laughs have subsided.Follow Ashley on Twitter.Hail, Caesar! is playing in theaters nationwide.