The plot, for we shall use our film words even if they aren’t entirely necessary, revolves around Capitol Picture’s plate-spinning ‘fixer’ Eddie Mannix (Brolin) and his manic attempts to keep his films functioning by correcting daily crises. At home, Mannix is also having a tough time reconciling the frivolous nature of his job with a rival offer of work from the business sector in a series of meetings he never has time to stay for as he is pulled away for yet another emergency. A fixer is a firefighter, dealing with every aspect of production that might go wrong, in a role that many modern producers would recognise as a cartoonish condensation of the later stages of Development Hell.
Among the fires blazing away, threatening to burn down his movies, is director and Laurence Olivier impersonator Laurence Lorentz (Fiennes) who is upset when he is landed with slack-jawed, blank-slate Western star Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich) for his new sophisticated British drama. Demanding, but beloved by the people for her purity, actress DeeAnna Moran (Johansson) is having trouble remembering which husband might be responsible for her latest trouble, while the lead in the studio’s biggest picture of the year ‘Hail, Caesar!’, Baird Whitlock (Clooney), has been kidnapped by ‘The Future’. Mannix must scramble to protect these scandals from reaching the press, personified by identical journalistic twins (Swinton and Swinton). Don’t ask what’s going on with Burt Gurney (Tatum), you’ll have to see it to believe.
It’s complicated, but it doesn’t really matter as camper than a caravan Fiennes and nasal New Yorker Johansson tear up the screen in the few scenes in which they appear. You’ll be too busy laughing through the first 20 minutes to worry about plot, which is really only dense because of the number of storylines the Coen’s have crammed in. Michael Gambon opens with a voiceover that deftly laces the film with a tongue-in-cheek 1920s style detective film noir, you immediately relax and let a witty and driven script steer you through a whirlwind of melodramas. It takes about an hour for the film to turn into a quasi-detective drama and which point you need to vaguely start reconsidering what is going on.
Brolin is solid as he unfortunately and ironically must serve to facilitate the film itself, making him functionally enjoyable, if not comical. However, Ehrenreich really stands out, even though he is similarly a plot-driving character, as a comic part. This may that the scenarios and lines he is given allow him to create more laugh out loud humour. For an actor dwarfed by the stature of his peers, he consistently draws the eye and is compelling for his dopey charm. Ehrenreich has a meta-dramatic role, where he is a character/actor/person brought in from outside this kind of film and has to find his feet at a level he might initially find difficult. It happens both inside Hail! and possibly for Alden himself.
Tilda Swinton hits the only bum note as Thora and Thessaly Thacker. None of her scenes are funny because of her; the twin conceit is thin to the point of invisibility. Perhaps this was the point, but it missed the mark.
There are some scenes that will live long in the memory and remain quotable for weeks after. Lorentz’ “would that it were so simple?” section with Doyle is infuriatingly funny. Mannix heads up a meeting with major religious leaders to discuss the taste of the scene depicting Christ, in which they bicker over theology in a caricatured, but again warm-hearted manner. The culmination of ‘Hail, Caesar!’– the roman epic which Mannix is battling to facilitate – (and Hail, Caesar! proper) has an amazing speech from Whitlock which lampoons set-piece and speechified actor-y moments that lead film stars love.
There are whole swathes of comments on Communism, in a time when Hollywood was dominated by Jews who were persecuted for being successful. When there are scenes which especially feature disgruntled Jewish screenwriters, it’s hard to tell if the Coen’s are reflecting on their own heritage. Christ knows, Jewish persecution features in the darker annals of Hollywood history. Then you recognise the production studio is called ‘Capitol’ and… does Mannix smack a little of sounding like Marx?
As Coen-lovers know, they often disregard specifics that other moviemakers obsess over. All the small nods to Hollywood, Jews (be they the Son of God or otherwise) and meta-dramatic moments must have ‘meaning’ to them, but whether it actually means anything in the grand sweep of the film is laughably pointless to over-scrutinise.
Review By George Meixner