HAIL, CAESAR!

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Hooked on Film rating:

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

The Coen Brother’s newest film opens up with a man in a confession booth, disclosing his peccadilloes to a mostly unseen priest who then informs him that it’s been here a mere 24 hours since his last confession. That doesn’t seem to matter; the man lays out every single transgression as if his existence and peace of mind would depend on it. Once we realize who this man is, and what he does for a living, our perspective shifts, and it all becomes strangely clear.

He’s Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a “fixer” working in Hollywood who’s job is keeping actors in line and out of transgressions that could tarnish the studio and result in a loss of profit. Back in the 50s, when Hail Caesar! takes place, there was such a thing as an actor losing his or her career as a direct result from unprofessional behavior, scandal, or being labeled a Communist, as opposed to today where no matter how badly an actor behaves, all he or she has to do is open up a Twitter account, go on reality TV, and they’re back on the spotlight, accruing millions of followers in the blink of an eye.

But not to digress: Mannix starts off his day by paying a visit to problematic, unmarried  star Deanna Moran (Scarlett Johanssen, sublime). When we see her, she’s a blonde revelation in an aquamarine swimsuit performing synchronized swimming in the style of Esther Williams. As she gets lifted into the air, the tension in her face and posture is barely visible, but one that could crack through at any moment (and finally does). The reason for this is revealed when Mannix questions her: she’s pregnant and has a vague idea of who the father could be. Her delivery is blowsy perfection and defines image before reality: Moran, while quite beautiful, is nothing more than a fantastically vulgar starlet with a thick New Yawk accent who sits with her legs spread apart. She’s got no sophistication, but is made to show off a package that the public clearly buys. And now Mannix has to find a way that her little secret never gets revealed.

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Mannix has other problems as well: rival gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton, playing twins!) are pursuing him relentlessly for dirt. They’ve got a vested interest in revealing the secret behind Baird Whitlock’s entry into films. Whitlock (George Clooney) is currently filming a version of King of Kings as a Roman centurion who, quite literally, finds Christ, but also finds something else: a group of intellectuals with Communist interests called “The Future”. The Future have an extra drug a goblet of prop wine Whitlock is supposed to drink in order to kidnap him and demand a ransom of 100,000 dollars, which Mannix considers a slight trade-off for Whitlock, who seems to be falling for The Future’s ideals. At the same time, Mannix is thrown into the task of expanding rising Western star Hobie Doyle’s appeal and place him in a comedy of manners directed by Laurence Laurentz. The catch is, Doyle has limited acting range, and Laurentz, much to his displeasure, has to coach the man into delivering his lines in upper crust English. Not a good match.

There are other plot threads sewing themselves into the fabric of this 1950s Ulysses and the Coens deliver each scene seamlessly. Having Mannix — a rather fictionalized and watered down version of the real man, who from accounts, could be rather ruthless — be the voice of reason surrounded by narcissists and clueless people gives Hail, Caesar! a center that otherwise it would lack. His dilemma — to leave the movie industry for a better offer in a company (Lockheed) which would allow him to be home by dinnertime is perhaps the most identifiable. While Whitlock finds Communism, and Doyle discovers more than he would like, and other players move within their self-centered universes, Mannix is here the most human of the bunch.

Hail, Caesar is a love letter to Hollywood: from the naming of a Latina starlet (cue an unseen yet pivotal character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo), a sequence straight out of On the Town (who knew Channing Tatum could dance like that?), to a short scene with Frances McDormand as a film editor. It looks and feels of the time and place with a speck of gloss. It’s also often funny, giving glimpses of the studio system and the artificiality that went into making the films that became classics. Even so, there’s just a slight hint of a darker picture just peeking through the day’s events, but it’s not something the Coens delve into, preferring a lighter tone with faint screwball touches, and an ending that perfectly brings Mannix full circle, ready for a moment of much needed peace. A fixer’s work is never done.

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