Josh Brolin, already impressive in No Country For Old Men and True Grit, proves himself equally worthy of taking on the classic Coen neurotic lead, playing Eddie Mannix, the head of Capitol Pictures (modelled on MGM and other prominent Hollywood studios) in the early 1950s. Wracked with Catholic guilt and the overwhelming stress of managing a studio, Brolin plays a deeply conflicted man who is forced to make tough decisions every day that clash with his values.
Mannix is a "fixer," pushed to the brink to ensure his Hollywood clients maintain their squeaky-clean image, even as they engage in questionable behaviour. Hail, Caesar! has a wonderfully ornate structure; on this particular day, Mannix's star player, Baird Whitlock (played with campy glee by George Clooney) has been kidnapped by a mysterious group called the Future. Meanwhile, one of his actresses (Scarlett Johansson) has become pregnant just as production is set to begin on a Busby Berkeley-style musical, and one of his directors (Ralph Fiennes) is clashing with a new actor (Alden Ehrenreich, in a career-making turn), a marquee cowboy who is forced to fill in on an Ernst Lubitsch-style social satire.
The Coens skip through Mannix's stressful day with screwball glee, replacing the sadism of A Serious Man for something a lot lighter in tone. Expanding on that film's fascination with paradoxes, along with a touch of the melancholy that was so deeply felt in Inside Llewyn Davis, the new film chases the question of how to deal with the contradictions life throws at us and the ways we struggle with representation in all its forms. Cinema, the Coens suggest, is a deeply flawed mechanism when it comes to depicting religion, capitalism and sex, and can work as a mask to hide the dangerous realities of life. But rather than dive further into nihilism, the film is far more optimistic than the "just let life happen" morals of their previous work. Instead, Hail, Caesar! succeeds because it embraces life's contradictions as two sides of the same coin, a Schrodinger's cat of a film about the need to manage the stress in one's life while accepting whatever comes our way.
Hail, Caesar! also works as blunt force comedy, making the philosophy all the more digestible. This is the Coens back in "funny" mode, a turn that hasn't always worked for them in the past, and the film runs the risk of expressing its ideas a little too broadly. The film has a noticeably episodic feel, less of an ensemble comedy and more of a parade of stars, as Brolin runs from production to production, trying to save his leading man. Hail, Caesar! certainly isn't lazy in tying together its various plot threads, but the film is far more intentionally stated in its themes compared to other broad Coen comedies, and the story is tied together a little too easily, lacking the kind of elegance found in Raising Arizona or The Big Lebowski.
Lovingly shot in warm light by Roger Deakins, Hail, Caesar! makes you yearn for the Coens to put on a full-blown musical. Two numbers from Johansson and Channing Tatum are strikingly hypnotic, recalling the fantasia of the musical scene in Lebowski or the hallucinatory quality of the L.A. haze in Barton Fink. These moments are just some of the references within references jam-packed throughout Hail, Caesar!, a film about Hollywood's early days that never feels like homework or a simple nostalgia exercise. Instead, the Coens have made a thematically dense film that feels mostly feather-light, another great entry in their body of work.