Hollywood loves films about the motion picture industry, and generally does a terrific job with the topic. Singing in the Rain is a one of the best films ever made, and it’s about the coming of sound in cinema, as is the much more recent The Artist. And that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. More cinematic industry gazing: A Star Is Born, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Sunset Boulevard, S.O.B., Shampoo, Tropic Thunder, and the wry, dark and entertaining Lost in La Mancha.
Add to the list the witty, amusing and somewhat baffling Coen Brothers film Hail, Caesar! Set in 1951 Hollywood, it’s focused on Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) the head of production at Capital Pictures, a babysitter for all the celebrities on the studio payroll, including singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), synchronized swimming star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), starlet Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio) and, most notably, the big star of the studio, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney).
While the film is ostensibly about a group of communist sympathizer script writers who kidnap Whitlock in return for a quickly paid ransom of $100,000, it’s really more of a love letter to the Golden Age of movie musicals and elaborate productions, bouncing giddily between the Western that Doyle’s starring in to the massive pool and aquatics of Moran’s latest film to a wonderful dance number where a group of sailors, led by the charming Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), sing and dance their way through a basement bar set.
Meanwhile, Whitlock and his captors are spending time discussing the relative merits of different political systems and Whitlock is becoming a communist sympathizer, day by day. Not only does he not mind his captivity, the captors are quite enamored of him and hang on his every word. However daft it may be, as Whitlock’s not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. In one of the many nods to irony, the communist group is based in a beautiful million-dollar home on the edge of the Pacific Ocean in Malibu. As they complain about being poor and not getting the pay or recognition they deserve for their own contributions to Hollywood’s machine.
In one of the funniest scenes in the movie, Whitlock is rescued by Doyle and then shows up in Mannix’s office. While studio chief Mannix listens with a disgusted expression on his face, Whitlock explains how he’s seen the light and has learned from the kidnappers that Capital Pictures is really just a part of the capitalist machine. Mannix gets fed up and slaps Whitlock across the face, ordering him to shut up and finish his swords and sandals epic “Hail, Caesar!”
The Coen brothers have a subtle sense of wry humor that works well in Hail, Caesar! There’s much irony in the juxtaposition of success and lectures about the common man, a sly comic scene involving a submarine, the fun of casting so many Hollywood actors against type (Clooney as a simpleton, Ralph Fiennes as a prancing git of a European director and Johansson as a whiney starlet?) and much more to be found in this complex film.
It also, unfortunately, is full of insider jokes and references that will leave most viewers scratching their heads, unsure of how everything fits together. Indeed, it doesn’t all fit together, and perhaps that’s the greatest reflective irony of it all: Just like the chaos of the studio system in the early 1950’s, Hail, Caesar! might be a great film, or might just be an incoherent pile of dreck.
I enjoyed the movie, but was definitely lost in the storyline more than once. But it was okay, because with such a nostalgic trip through the cinematic era, it was like a pleasant conversation with an old relative whose attention occasionally wanders off…