“Hail, Caesar!” is not so much a film as it is a tapestry, woven with the golden thread of 1950s cinema. It’s not quite a film about films; rather, it’s a film about the things that films are about. It is a kaleidoscope of the surfaces in films, of everything shiny and glossy and beautifully inauthentic, and it’s about the dirty, arm-twisting world that brings them to life. It is too simplifying to say that this is just Joel and Ethan Coen’s love letter to film. It is also their deconstruction of it, their portrayal of film as a concept that lives in a corporate capitalist machine that should be appreciated if for no other reason than the aesthetic pleasure it provides.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a fixer, responsible for ensuring that the movies of Capitol Pictures get made, by any means necessary. He is a man obsessed with the details, obsessed with drawing out and polishing and controlling the outward face of the movie industry. Whether it’s slapping an actress to remind her that the studio “owns her likeness” or making sure salacious stories about his actors never make it into the press, Mannix sees his prime responsibility as making sure the mystical aura around the film business remains intact.
But he’s also a man in love with films — the gritty side of production never phases him — and it’s placed in stark contrast with a job offer from the Lockheed Corporation, offering work “in the real world,” as the representative from the company holds up a photograph of the atomic bomb. But as he confides in one of multiple confessionals, making films just feels right.
We see lovingly crafted vignettes, insets of films within the film, both from their finished perspective and from that of the crew watching the performances on the sound stage. They are over the top, extravagant homages, but as you watch, you realize the world of “Hail, Caesar!” is just as mystified, just as produced. When Thora Thacker (Tilda Swinton) threatens to run a gossip story about Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), she pauses for dramatic effect before delivering the mysterious reference that scares Mannix cold: “On Wings With Eagles.” In the background, we hear a single, distant bird “caw.” The Coen Brothers — who wrote, produced, directed and edited the film — remind us constantly that their film is no different than the ones it portrays, as guilty in its associations but also as steeped in its aestheticism.
In a single day in the life on set, we see Mannix deal with everything from a kidnapped and ransomed star actor to a pregnant actress with no husband. But he takes everything in stride with the singlehanded determination of someone who truly believes in the product being created. Ultimately the plot, the problems he has to solve, are less important than how he solves them. It is no surprise that those problems revolve around his star actors, and the Coen Brother’s casting of George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum — some of today’s most recognizable names — to play them is a deliberate leveraging of the concept of star-persona: The film is not even about them but there they are on the cover, modern counterparts to the Clark Gables and Claudette Colberts of the bygone era. It’s another nod to the fact that though everything is different, nothing has changed.
That’s the root of it, really. On the surface, “Hail, Caesar!” is funny, clever, beautifully shot and well-casted piece of cinema. But on another level so integrated into the narrative that it’s almost impossible to tease out, the film is arguing about morals, economics, and the philosophical foundations of filmmaking in the first place. And whether you think about that during the movie or not, it has a distinctly indelible quality; it lingers on your mind and in your discussions with your fellow moviegoers. New connections bubble up days later; it forces analysis. And of course, it has the touch of God-complex fitting of such a grandiose endeavor. Near the beginning, we see clips from a film with stand-in cards for a yet un-shot scene of the divine power. And in the final shot, a sweeping panorama of the movie lot, with a water tower painted with the word “Behold!” we pan up into the glorious light and there appears the text, “Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.”