In “Hail, Caesar!,” Joel and Ethan Coen extend their career-spanning fascination with humankind’s futility in the face of the larger forces that shape our world to that most beguiling of machines: the Hollywood dream factory.
The film, a satire of the midcentury studio system, is characterized by a lightness of touch and a playful spirit that’s tinged with real affection for classical genre pictures, from B Westerns to musicals, sprawling biblical epics and synchronized swimming movies.
The Coens invest a great deal of care and concern in re-enactments that provide the central spectacle in the portrayal of the goings-on at fictional Capitol Pictures. They are characterized by wide shots and high angles of Scarlett Johansson, playing an Esther Williams type, or a singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich), strumming his guitar on a porch and singing about the moon. Working with longtime cinematographer Roger Deakins, the Coens supplement this immersion in long-lost modes of filmmaking with evocative backlot imagery, as a character learns his lines while dwarfed by imposing structures, and noir-tinged sequences that further seem ripped directly from movies of the period at hand.
The story follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the studio’s fixer, over the course of an intense period where he must grapple with the kidnapping of one of his biggest movie stars (George Clooney, in full-on knucklehead mode) by a communist cult, a personal crisis involving another star (Johansson), editing troubles, a high-minded director (Ralph Fiennes) who is upset with a studio casting decision and nosy twin gossip reporters (both played by Tilda Swinton).
It’s organized chaos pitched at the sort of frenzied pace the Coens have mastered in their previous screwball efforts. The movie is immersed in the relatively inconsequential absurdities of these crises, and it includes the sort of extended philosophical digressions that characterize the best Coens’ work, most notably when Mannix convenes a diverse range of religious leaders to comment on the portrayal of the Christ figure in the eponymous fictional “Caesar” epic.
There’s a fundamental seriousness behind the playful exterior, however, and it’s captured eloquently in Brolin’s performance. His Mannix is wracked with guilt, a frequent presence in confession, and doomed by the genuine conviction that his personal sacrifice is necessary to preserve the magic of the movies for the rest of us.