Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Scarlett Johannsson, Jonah Hill, Francis McDormand, Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill
What a disappointment is Hail, Caesar! Re-imagining the life of famous Hollywood “fixer” Eddie Mannix as a saint is fine. Making a messy movie seems a sin for a man who was known for cleaning up messes. Even with the homage to classic Hollywood, what a shambles!
Joel and Ethan Coen always shoot interesting projects (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men). They don’t always do successful ones. Hail, Caesar! is one of their low points. Clunky narration, long tangents, uneven scenes, and a lack of a drive damage this picture’s possibilities as a screwball comedy.
The real Mannix was an morally wobbly oddball. He was a devout Catholic whose marriage was secretly open. His own wife slept with suicidal Superman George Reeves; Mannix carried on with a Japanese immigrant. When actors and other Hollywood elite got into trouble, he’d clean everything up, spinning wholesome stories out of drunk driving, dirty pictures, infidelity, Communist activity, homosexual trysts, and unexpected pregnancies. His famous contribution to Hollywood history – besides covering up all those scandals – was a meticulous record of all of MGM’s movies, their expenses, and their profits, under his watch in the 1940s and 1950s.
In short, he’s a great subject for a movie – especially a comic one.
The Coen Brothers create a fictionalized version of him, with the same name and many of the same quirks. In Hail, Caesar! Mannix (Brolin) is overseeing a Spartacus-like production when Communists kidnap its star (Clooney). Ferretting out who’s behind the plot is difficult. Mannix is also dealing with a sweet, dumb cowboy actor (the brilliant, young Ehrenreich), comically miscast in a Mid-Atlantic drama. He also cleans up an Esther Williams actress (a filth-mouthed Johansson) who’s gotten herself pregnant.
The first joke is, to this studio, Mannix is a Christ, much like the unseen savior in Hail, Caesar! There are a few other funny bits in this Hollywood cavalcade, but that’s all. Nothing gels. You could get the best stuff by zipping through a DVD. It cries to be a madcap farce, and instead ends up being a disjointed jumble of junk with a few jems scattered here and there.
The good stuff? Twangy Ehrenreich getting line readings from the snobby English director Fiennes is the best bit in the film. Channing Tatum’s tap number is amazing. Unfortunately, everything Johansson touches – even her fancy water ballet – flounders. The long, senseless discussions about Communism filled me with boredom. Even Clooney is often dull.
Brolin is game in the lead. He brings a certain dignity to Mannix. And young Ehrenreich might just steal the whole picture. Together, they and the few funny bits aren’t enough to redeem this production.
The Coens do have a cool sense of style. The costumes, sets, cars, and music are all slick. The subject gives the brothers chance to show Westerns, tap-dance musicals, water ballets, and even film noir. Most of these, though, make the film more disorganized when they should have pulled it together.
Maybe the Coens’ point is that the whole movie industry has always been a teetering, senseless disaster – on the verge of toppling like the Roman Empire. Maybe a savior like Mannix is the only one who kept the whole frivolous thing running for years. However, all the audience is going to see is a film about a fixer that needed some serious fixing itself.