Hail, Caesar! is one of those movies where you get to the end credits, turn to the person you saw the movie with, and simultaneously exclaim, “What?!” Set in 1951, the Cohen Brothers' most recent experiment is a whirlwind combination of religious humor, simultaneous storylines, and throwbacks to Cold War red scare.
The film follows the chaotic life of Eddie Mannix (played by the cleverly subtle Josh Brolin), the head of physical production for Capitol Pictures and fixer of the scandalous behavior of the production company’s stars. He is married with two children (his wife is played by The Newsroom’s Alison Pill,) but spends almost every night in the office or riding around Los Angeles, home of the rich and famous.
The leading storyline involves none other than George Clooney as Baird Whitlock, a Kirk Douglas-type movie star currently starring in the titular epic Hail, Caesar!. Whitlock plays a Roman general who becomes a believer and follower of Jesus Christ. While shooting a scene, he is drugged by two extras and eventually abducted.
Scarlett Johansson takes a wonderful turn as DeeAnna, a starlet synchronized swimmer, complete with a thick Jersey girl accent. When she becomes pregnant out of wedlock, Mannix and his team must figure out a way to cover this up from the presses, as Johansson’s 'innocence' is what the public expects from the studio. In comes Jonah Hill as a surety agent and unlikely romantic interest for DeeAnna.
Cut back to Baird Whitlock, tied to a pool chair still in his Roman garb, in a house on a remote cliff in Malibu. As he steps out of the backroom, walks down the hall, and enters the living room, he comes upon a room full of old, white men. “Confused?” asks the head honcho. “Mhmm,” says Whitlock. Turns out he’s been abducted by The Future, a communist cell with a membership of frustrated Hollywood writers trying to take over the capitalist film industry, which coincidentally has also taken away each of the men’s hard-earned money.
The turning point comes when it is revealed that Mannix has been offered a management position at Lockheed Corporation, an aircraft manufacturing firm putting its resources in building and developing Cold War nuclear weapons. As he struggles to deal with six movie stars and two reporters as well as his wife at home, he comes to really consider the calm life he could have in management. Will he stay at his fun yet demanding studio job that has him going to Holy Confession three times a day for the various sins he has to commit (eventually, the priest tells him to stop coming: “You’re not that bad,”) or will he go to the corporate and cushy, maybe slightly immoral, executive position?
Other incredible performances come from Tilda Swinton as twin gossip columnists, Channing Tatum as a musical film star, Ralph Fiennes as an award-winning British film director who has to deal with a “singing cowboy” (Alden Ehrenreich) who is thrown into his high-class aristocratic drama, and Frances McDormand as a stuffy film editor who smokes too much.
The various storylines that the audience has to juggle, as Mannix juggles his various problem cases, can lead to a headache. But the mangled stories are an analogy for Hollywood itself—chaotic, messy, and a tad unethical. The cinematography of Hail, Caesar! was what really put it over the top. The shots of old-time Hollywood sets made you feel like you were in the studio with Brolin, Clooney, and Johansson.
Hail, Caesar! was one of the movies I was most looking forward to in the post-Oscar season. After seeing the trailer, I was psyched. But after seeing it, I felt like the trailer gave me a basic idea of the film, including all the characters and storylines, and the movie didn’t do much more than fill in some of the gaps. I'm glad I saw it and certainly enjoyed watching it (and attempting to analyze it with my friends right after seeing it). It's just one of those movies you have to see multiple times to fully understand.