Don’t be fooled by the previews for the Coen brothers’ latest film, “Hail, Caesar!” The plot is not as ludicrous as it appears. Amid the ostensible tomfoolery of the U.S. film industry in the 1950s, the Coens grapple with questions of art and faith and why people do what they do, and even when they are playing, they are serious.
It is utterly hilarious quite often, but, as with all of their films, the interplay between tone, subject and theme are complex and shifting and they don’t always match up. In “Hail, Caesar!” there are giggles aplenty, but you have to wait a long time between them. The film follows a day in the life of Eddie Mannix, a “fixer” at Capitol Pictures who works day and night to keep the movies, primarily the movie stars, on track and out of trouble.
These troubles include taking dirty photos, unwed pregnancy, kidnapping, ransom and transitioning a handsome cowboy into a serious actor. While George Clooney, who gets kidnapped by earnest, intellectual Communist screenwriters, gets top billing, the film is stolen by that handsome young cowboy Hobie Doyle, played by Coppola protégé Alden Ehrenreich.
Doyle is accustomed to performing horse riding and rope tricks, and singing cowboy songs, so when he gets tossed into a prestigious drama directed by the pretentious Lawrence Larentz (a magnificent Ralph Fiennes) he is in way over his head. Fiennes attempting to direct Ehrenreich is the single funniest thing in a movie full of funny things.
Like many a Coen cowboy character before him, Doyle is the level-headed center of the storm of the film; he is also guileless, charming and adorable. His actions matter more to the viewer than anyone else’s, and his character is the one you come closest to caring about.
Clooney is perfect as the Hollywood playboy so accustomed to waking up somewhere new that he doesn’t bat an eye when he’s drugged and kidnapped, but rather, still in his Roman costume, takes an immediate interest in the Communist teachings and his kidnappers. He’s just not actually in the movie that much.
“Hail, Caesar!” has an odd pacing; it drags, then pops. The film’s greatest delights are the many styles of film within a film that are recreated so perfectly on each set Mannix visits. Scarlett Johansson’s Esther Williams-style swimming sequence is simply enjoyable and interesting on its own as a true example of that genre, and the choreography in Channing Tatum’s Gene Kelly-inspired sailor dance number is just plain good. Whatever might be less than vital in the plot of the film, the little movies within “Hail, Caesar!” are sublime, loving, precise send-ups of many forgotten but beloved cinema genres.
I have found with every Coen brothers film that the pleasures of viewing them unfold with each subsequent viewing. It’s not just the complexities, callbacks and inside jokes within the films themselves that you can appreciate once you’re familiar with the material, although those seem to be virtually unlimited. So many of the structures of their films are peculiar and anticlimactic that removing any sense of intrigue one feels in a first viewing makes the experience more rewarding.
This film is so deliberately constructed, and the movies within the movie are so detailed, that the feeling this strange movie inspires is appreciation, not sheer enjoyment; thoughtful study, not uproarious laughter. The response is aesthetic, not emotional. But it sure does look good, and everyone in it is doing something perfect and interesting. I can’t wait to watch it again.
“Hail, Caesar!” is now playing at the Crescent Theater and multiplex theaters.