Through the lens of history, it is something of a wonder that the studio era of Hollywood was able to crank out the amount of product they did and wrap their stars with such allure and mystique. The people who pulled it off must have been really clever…or at least really lucky.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is about to have a very rough day, perhaps that’s why we meet him giving confession at a Catholic church first thing in the morning.
As the sun rises, he goes about work trying to wrap Capitol Pictures latest prestige film – HAIL, CAESAR! A STORY OF THE CHRIST. The film stars Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) as a Roman soldier who sees the light when brought face to face with a certain carpenter’s son. It’s an epic film, a grand film, and one that Capitol even brings in religious clergy to consult on in an effort to get it “just so”. The only thing from allowing them to complete it on time? Whitlock gets kidnapped right off the set.
In his stead is a note demanding $100,000 from a group calling itself “The Future”.
It falls to Eddie to bring about Whitlock’s safe return. Problem is, this is just one of the tasks Eddie is trying to complete on this particular day.
In one corner we have Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a western star who Capitol feels might be best suited doing something higher brow. Mannix spends much of the day valiantly trying to rebrand Doyle’s image. Not only does he cast him in a drawing-room melodrama directed by Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), but he sends him to his film’s premiere with a starlet that he wants tongues to wag over (Veronica Osorio). How much this leopard wants to change his spots remains to be seen.
In another corner is a gossip columnist named Thora Thacker (Tilda Swinton) that is threatening to run a salacious story on Whitlock and his involvement with a film called ON WINGS OF EAGLES. Whatever Thacker has on Whitlock, it’s clear that Mannix doesn’t want her to run it – but how to delay the intrepid reporter? Worse still, Mannix also has to keep tabs on another gossip columnist who just happens to be Thora’s twin sister, Thessaly Thacker (Swinton again). How to control what both women write about his leading man…especially while trying to retrieve said leading man from kidnappers?
Finally, there’s DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) – star of Capitol Pictures’ enormously popular water ballets. Moran is struggling to complete her latest picture where she performs a number as something of mermaid princess. You see, she is a newly pregnant unwed woman and is struggling to fit into her costume. Mannix has to go about controlling the gossip on her and finding her someone to claim as the father of her child. All of this while rebranding Doyle, retrieving Whitlock, and stalling the Thacker sisters.
Then there’s the Lockheed company’s attempts to recruit Mannix, and Capitol’s musical starring Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) and his tap-dancing soldiers, and the true nature of “The Future”…but getting into all of that would have us here talking plot until rapture.
The Coen Brothers make two types of movies. Most often they make a razor-sharp story of compromised morals, black humour, and violent consequence. Sometimes though, their rhythm is a bit more syncopated, their route taken a bit more scenic, the end-result a bit more rustic. In the end, these films aren’t often for everyone.
HAIL, CAESAR! fits into this second category.
Without a doubt, “The Ballad of Eddie Mannix” is a great idea for a film. Brolin plays him with just the right balance of calculation and bumble. For instance, when we watch him try to dispatch the Thacker Sisters, we see just how long he can thrust and parry with any worthy opponent…until he runs out of moves, and then he runs away babbling. He’s backed down his opponent just enough that he can flee instead of actually defeating them. It takes a curious chemistry to pull that off without seeming like a coward or a bully, and Brolin comes with just that chemistry.
What makes films like HAIL, CAESAR! special is the way you step back from them and realize how little so much of them had to do with the core conceit. DeeAnna’s pregnancy, for instance, has nothing to do with anything. Her situation doesn’t affect the outcome of Whitlock’s return, nor the completion of her picture. The resolution of her situation is little more than the right man showing up at the right time. Mannix took the ball 90 yards down the field, fate took it the final 10.
So why include it? Well, if nothing else, it gives the Coens an excuse to stage a water ballet sequence…and that, for them, is reason enough. It’s fun, it’s pretty, and it lets them play in a part of the sandbox they don’t normally get to play in. Who cares if it “doesn’t matter”?
The point of a film like this is to give these moments just enough connective tissue to include them all – to wander into the offices at Capitol Studios that a film like this would normally breeze right past…to linger on a genre we normally wouldn’t visit (the water ballet, or Hobie Doyle’s drawing-room picture).
The golden age of Hollywood was all about artifice. It was about selling audience on perfect faces and honey-dripping fantasy. Sure, great deals of dark narrative and moral ambiguity came out of the era as well, but the hardest sell was put behind pure escapism…most of which was deeply absurd. Whether it was singing cowboys or romantic centurions, the product movie producers sold us was so far from reality it might as well have all been produced by Walt Disney. To keep all of that absurdity going in one direction, a great deal of juggling and pure manipulation needed to happen behind those giant studio gates. It was necessary to maintain the illusion, necessary to control image, necessary to stoke perception and “keep them wanting more”.
That was where men like Eddie Mannix excelled, and what HAIL, CAESAR! is trying to spoof. It was men like Eddie who kept the acrobats in the air, who directed our attention to the centre ring, and – when necessary – who followed the elephants with a shovel and a trash can.