Our story takes place over the span of approximately 24 hours in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). It’s the early 1950s, on the trailing end of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and Capitol Pictures (the same studio featured in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink) is one of the biggest in Los Angeles. The company employs Mannix (who in real life worked for MGM) as a “fixer”, charged with keeping the actors’ and studio’s scandals out of the press. Currently the studio is nearly done filing a historical epic about the Roman Empire and Jesus Christ called Hail, Caesar!, which stars one of the biggest names in Hollywood: Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Other projects in the pipeline include a western starring Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a melodrama entitled Merrily We Dance directed by Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), an aquatic fantasy starring synchronized swimmer DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), and a musical about US Navy sailors starring Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum). But things take a turn for the worst when Baird Whitlock is captured by a cabal of surprisingly friendly communists, and it’s up to Mannix to find him before the story gets into the newspapers.
Although Whitlock’s kidnapping is what drives the film’s plot forward, its not really the point of the movie. Rather, the entire film is the Coen Brothers’ love letter to a bygone era of Hollywood. A respectable chunk of the movie is actually devoted to the movies that each of the actors are working on, with extended scenes featuring Hobie Doyle’s horse and gun acrobatics, DeeAnna Moran’s underwater choreography, the exceedingly detailed and incredibly pompous party scenes of Merrily We Dance, and Burt Gurney’s entire song and dance number No Dames!
The choice to have the fictional movies themselves be the primary focus is a double-edged sword. On the negative side, it does sometimes the film is plodding along with little in the way of actual plot. In addition, the large number of characters in the film (alongside all the people above we also have Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Alison Pill, and more) combined with the film’s fairly short run time (100 minutes) ensures that many of the characters only receive a small amount of screen time. These factors do make the film seem a bit unfocused, without much of a plot or a point to make.
But they also make it a really fun movie. And this movie is full of scenes, even apart from the movie excerpts, which serve no greater purpose apart from being funny. The Coen Brothers’ skill at writing dialogue and characters really shines here; one of my favorite is a mostly pointless scene featuring a Catholic priest and a rabbi arguing over the depiction of Jesus in Hail, Caesar! Which quickly turns into a parody of the millennia of theological conflict between the religions. Another features Hobie Doyle showing off his lasso techniques (with spaghetti) and another involves a scheme to have DeeAnna Moran adopt her own child. It’s basically just a bunch of random events tied together with only the barest bones of a unified plot connecting them, but damn aren’t those random events really entertaining. Plus, since it’s their love letter to old Hollywood, if you know anything about film history you’ll understand all sorts of references and subtle little jokes the Brothers snuck in.
So in the end, Hail, Caesar! isn’t another Fargo or No Country for Old Men. It won’t be remembered in years to come as one of their many great masterpieces. But you know, its still a damn funny and well-made movie. Sure, it meanders along with basically no point, but its not always the destination that’s important. Sometimes it’s the journey. And Hail, Caesar! is one fun journey.