‘Hail, Caesar!’: Hooray for the Coen brothers’ Hollywood homage

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Here is a movie to celebrate. Here is a movie to celebrate our love of the movies — even the kitchsy fare, like the corny Westerns and the unintentionally campy biblical epics and the dancing sailor movies of the 1940s and 1950s.

“Hail, Caesar!” is pure, popcorn fun — a visual treat, a comedic tour de force and a sublime and sly slice of satire.

What a deep and wonderful love the Coen brothers have for movies. They love paying homage to genres from noir to Depression-era musicals to Westerns, they love making movies about movies, and with “Hail, Caesar!” they clearly loved making some five movies WITHIN the main movie.

Set in the Hollywood of the early 1950s and filmed in gorgeous tones that reflect the time, “Hail, Caesar!” stars Josh Brolin in one of the funniest and most oddly endearing performances of his career as Eddie Mannix, a square-jawed, no-nonsense Hollywood “fixer” at the fictional Capitol Studios. (Eddie Mannix was the name of a real MGM production executive/fixer back in the day. This guy is pure fiction.)

When a young starlet poses for risqué photos, when a leading man runs into romantic trouble, when a likable family star is pregnant out of wedlock — Eddie steps in and makes the problems disappear. His job is to keep Capitol Studios productions running on time and under budget, to keep his stars out of the gossip rags unless he’s controlling the story, and to keep the unseen studio boss, a “Mister Skank,” happy.

Eddie’s a good guy, plagued by guilt over the smallest thing, whether it’s smoking a few cigarettes or neglecting his wife. He’s in confession so often — nearly every day — even his priest says, “It’s too soon for you to be back.”

In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Eddie meets with a group of religious leaders to make sure “Hail, Caesar!,” a big-budget production about a ruthless Roman leader who is transformed by a chance meeting with Jesus, isn’t offensive. A rabbi reminds Eddie he believes Jesus was just a man; a priest attempts to explain how Jesus is the Son of God but also one with his father; an Orthodox Christian priest says he doesn’t buy the scene where a soldier jumps from one moving chariot to another.

George Clooney, completing what he has called his “Numbskull Trilogy” of Coen brothers films (After “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “Intolerable Cruelty”), hams it up delightfully as Baird Whitlock, a vainglorious and not particularly bright movie star who is the lead in “Hail, Caesar!”

When Baird goes missing and a ransom note is delivered to the studio, Eddie springs into action. He hunts for clues to Baird’s disappearance, he collects $100,000 in cash for the ransom, he staves off the pesky inquiries of twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton) — AND he puts out other messy fires at the studio.

The Roman picture, with scenes that look like they could have been culled from “The Robe” or “The Silver Chalice,” is one of five movies within the movie.
 We’re also gifted with:

• An elaborate synchronized swim musical number starring Scarlett Johansson as an Esther Williams-type star playing a smiling mermaid.

• A couple of Westerns, both starring Hobie Doyle (a very funny and likable Alden Ehrenreich), a cowboy plucked from obscurity to become a star. Hobie’s not much of an actor; his signature line is, “Here, Whitey!,” Whitey being his horse.

• A sophisticated comedy of manners, directed by one Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes, brilliant), a pretentious twit of a director who reminds Eddie that for 20 years, the Laurence Laurentz name has meant a certain level of quality.

• An exhilarating, elaborate, impressively choreographed, fantastically funny musical number with echoes of films such as “Anchors Aweigh” and “Singin’ in the Rain” and “On the Town.” Channing Tatum kills as the song-and-dance man Burt Gurney, who is playing a Navy man enjoying one last night with his fellow sailors at a bar called “The Swinging Dinghy” before they head out for eight months at sea.

In a number called “No Dames,” Burt sings, slides across the bar, tap dances over peanut shells, dances on tabletops. The longer the number goes on, the gayer the subtext, to the point where it’s no longer subtext.

What makes all of this so great is the Coen brothers aren’t mocking these genres; they’re staging and lensing each movie-within-a-movie in a way that mirrors the technology, the the sets, the available effects, the visual style and the acting techniques of the time.

Oh, right: Clooney’s Baird Whitlock has been kidnapped! What happened to him?

Suffice to say THAT plot thread gives the Coen brothers a chance to poke fun at some of the more pretentious, condescending, morally superior self-appointed Hollywood Communists of the time. Also, there’s a submarine, and a funny dog, and Jonah Hill has a terrific cameo, and even the actors who have a line or two (or no lines at all) playing a chauffeur or an extra on the Roman film or a vacuuming maid or a cop make valuable contributions to the overall vibe.

This is one of my favorite movies ever made about making movies.

[s3r star=4/4]

Universal Pictures presents a film written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Running time: 106 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some suggestive content and smoking). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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