Take a look in the mirror, Hollywood — you might not like what you see.
That’s the sentiment behind the Coen brothers’ latest film, “Hail, Caesar!,” which follows Eddie Mannix — a slim, mustachioed and suited Josh Brolin — as a major Hollywood studio “fixer.” His job is to make sure his stars’ lives keep running smoothly and sweep any problems under the rug.
When the megastar of the studio’s biggest production, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), gets kidnapped by a group of disgruntled screenwriters — who also turn out to be communists — Mannix has to scramble to find him before too much time on the movie is lost and, perhaps more importantly, before the gossip tabloids get word.
The plot is so short and simple it’s practically a tagline. In fact, the movie has more to do with Mannix’s stress over looking for Whitlock and addressing problems on other movies filming on the studio lot, than the attempt to find Whitlock itself. We see Mannix deal with problems on each of his five films and then still find more energy to make it through the day.
“Caesar” is, in a way, a love letter to the Hollywood of days past. The film’s shots are bright and full of warm, inviting colors — even the night exteriors have a warmth to them. The walls of Mannix’s office are golden yellow. Compared to the black and gray pallet of the Coen brother’s previous film, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Caesar” is a technicolor rainbow.
While the Coen brothers managed to utilize all forms of light and color throughout the movie, the story in the first hour or so seems messy. Following a trend of shrinking time frames — “Llewyn Davis” examined a single character in a week’s time — “Caesar” has perhaps the largest A-list cast in recent memory, but takes place over just 28 hours.
The film jumps from one movie set — and actor — to another without connection to what happened in the previous scenes. Each world exists on its own, unbothered by what’s occurring across the studio lot. The actions in each are less plot lines and more sideshows that Mannix walks past.
This is a trend that continues throughout the movie that the film’s marketing no doubt intentionally masked. One scene with Scarlett Johansson, playing the recently impregnated actress DeeAnna Moran, lasted 12 minutes before the movie carries on as if she didn’t exist. The same for scenes containing Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand and Jonah Hill, among others. The only star we are reminded of after each venture to another movie set is Brolin, whose stern, stressed and frustrated character progresses the movie alone.
But there’s a method to the Coen’s madness — many pieces introduced early on return later.
Having a massive A-list cast play seemingly small roles in the movie resembles the real atmosphere in a Hollywood studio lot. These characters seem grandiose because in our reality, the actors playing them really are. It creates a feeling of being surrounded by stars on every corner, stars that aren’t connected to much outside of their work, thereby immersing the viewer in Mannix’s life.
The film works in part as a nod to the audience. The bombastic scenes filmed on the lot, the Communist Party plotline — a much funnier subplot here than it was in the meager “Trumbo” — and even the actual size of the sets the Coen brothers used, are all intentional. The filmmakers are poking fun at how comically large Hollywood was in 1950, and still is today, while making a movie that’s in itself bombastic.
The Coen brothers have always had a way of conjuring actors’ best performances.
Brolin’s Mannix, as the true star of the film, indulges by providing a sense of reality, but the more eccentric characters that foil him don’t always follow suit.
Clooney’s performance is built like many of his previous ones — he knows we see a devilishly handsome man and expect him to be put together, as he was in the “Oceans” franchise, but he plays us by doing the opposite. In “Up in the Air” he was insecure, lonely, restless and frustrated. In “The Descendents” he was frazzled and out of sorts. Here, in a performance that is effective, but certainly not great like the other two, he’s dumb and gullible. It works well for the film, as Whitlock is an easily likable star without a whole lot going on in his noggin.
Johansson is stunning in her small role as DeeAnna Moran and gives some wonderful one-liners to Hill, a lawyer named Joseph Silverman, later in the movie. Channing Tatum’s Burt Gurney’s, a role Zac Efron was born to play in real life, is an actor playing a sailor in the Navy whose main role is to tap dance and sing as his crew films a dance number.
Alden Ehrenreich plays Hobie Doyle, the biggest role of any of the actors playing actors, and the Coen brothers use him best. He’s charming and funny as a cowboy-turned-movie star with no real acting ability, the Coens utilizing his smaller size and baby face to make him seem like a boy among men in the land of Hollywood giants.
These vignettes are clever, for the most part, but also turn these characters into archetypes more than fully fleshed-out people. This choice seems intentional, meant to represent different parts of the industry, but results in unrealized human beings.
Doyle is the handsome face with little talent, Gurney is the handsome face with some, Moran is the star with personal troubles that need covering up and Whitlock the immense talent who probably isn’t smart enough to do anything but act.
On paper, “Caesar” is a movie that reads like an Academy Award ballot, but its Hollywood density doesn’t quite play out like one.