Hail, Caesar! is unlike any other Coen Brothers movie, except perhaps Intolerable Cruelty. It doesn’t look like one. It doesn’t behave like one. It’s not cut together like one. Nor does it build itself upon a plot of complete misunderstanding like one. Consider the stories of Blood Simple (1984), Raising Arizona (1987), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), No Country For Old Men (2007). They revolve around a MacGuffin and unite several character threads into a tale of tragic coincidence. None of this happens in Hail, Caesar!, which is like the loom the tapestry is woven on but without the material.
This isn’t to say it’s a bad film. Oh no. It’s mighty entertaining. It just feels a little fractured, like scenes coming together over dialogue and character and failing to form a complete party. To be sure, no Coen movie is ever really complete (I recall the devastation felt by many at the abrupt ending of No Country), but they all lead somewhere, with people, and are usually satirically twisted. Hail, Caesar! is a satire on the movie business, but it’s so caught up in itself that perhaps all it ends up satirising are the Coens.
Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a recovering smoker whose wife “thinks it’s bad for my health”. Eddie works for Capitol Pictures, a large movie company that, during the course of this film, is in the middle of several high-budget productions, starring many high-profile actors (in an aerial shot, Capitol’s lot appears to house approximately twenty sound stages). Eddie is a fixer, which is to say he fixes things. He keeps a tight ship, his watch is always handy, and he never panics, not even when twin gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton) threaten to run exposés on his biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney).
Baird is set to star in Capitol’s biblical epic, “Hail, Caesar!”, and he’s one of those fine old actors whose career is built upon hammy roles and over-the-top performances. Minor spoilers follow from here. During one of his takes, he is drugged, abducted, and awakes in a lovely modern seaside home, populated, we discover, by American communists, who see the American film industry as a rich stand for capitalism (which, by definition, means it is against communism). The communists seek to employ Baird’s know-how. Baird, meanwhile, is so bereft of true intelligence that when help finally arrives, he’s found lounging alone in the hall, sipping a piña colada, talking about how fine the architecture is.
But Baird is just one facet of this story, which takes place at several places all at once, all with Eddie Mannix storming through. Brolin is great here, not least because the camera’s always on him, and he has to make difficult decisions as Eddie, such as whether he should keep his exhausting, thankless job and be happy, or move to Lockheed Aerospace, enjoy flexible hours, but be miserable till he dies. He is the only human character in this farce, albeit one implausibly calm in the face of sure implosion.
Hail, Caesar!, I think, is a movie you have to be in the proper frame of mind for. You cannot go in to it half-asleep, or thinking about football. You must go in, remembering the Coens, ready for something different to appear. Only then will you take anything at all away from it. Is this their greatest picture? No. It’s not even one of their better ones. It’s a fun ride through the bowels of a bustling Hollywood dungeon, but the communist plot, the disjointed faculties, the developments that lead nowhere, and the lack of conviction even to the comedy means Coen fans will still be returning to The Dude and his rug that tied the whole room together before they think of giving Hail, Caesar! another go.