The Unfettered Critic – April 2016

We admit to being suckers for Hollywood biographies. Many of these “based on fact” movies extol the accomplishments of famous personalities: Lawrence of Arabia; Lincoln; J. Edgar. Others examine lesser-known individuals who deserve our attention: Schindler’s List; Twelve Years a Slave; A Dangerous Mind. Filmed portrayals of Stephen Hawking, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Tina Turner, Queen Elizabeth(s), and dozens of others have enthralled us. But we’ve never before been treated to anything that resembles the latest film from co-directors Joel and Ethan Coen: Hail, Caesar!, a baffling, convoluted, episodic, fascinating biography of Eddie Mannix. “Who?” you ask. As well you should.

You’ve probably seen the promotional trailer for Hail, Caesar! Universal Pictures has blasted it across our TV and theater screens for months. If so, you probably think it’s a George Clooney movie: the trailer concentrates on Clooney in a leather-laden Roman Centurion costume. Actually, it’s not a George Clooney movie at all. He plays a secondary character that gets kidnapped from the set of a movie he’s shooting. But Universal’s marketing department couldn’t figure out how to explain Hail, Caesar!, so they simply went with showing the film’s most famous actor. It wasn’t a bad decision. It got us into the theater, and we’re glad it did. Otherwise we wouldn’t have learned about real life character Eddie Mannix. Oh, oh, there’s that name again.

Let us explain. “Hail, Caesar!” is the name of the movie that George Clooney’s character is shooting in Hail Caesar!, the movie that we’re talking about here. This movie within the movie is a somewhat realistic reproduction of the biblical epic Ben-Hur, which accounts for Clooney’s period leather garb. The head of the studio producing that epic is—get ready—Eddie Mannix. In reality, Eddie Mannix was a vice president at MGM Studios throughout the 1950s. His executive tasks included being a “fixer,” which meant keeping the gossip press at bay when the studio’s actors got into trouble. In Caesar, he has to keep Clooney’s kidnapping out of the press, despite the fact that twin gossip columnists—both played by Tilda Swinton—are hot on the trail.

Mannix is portrayed brilliantly by Josh Brolin (seen only briefly in the trailer). While he’s secretly handling the kidnapping, he’s also: hiding a major actress’s pregnancy (in a role delightfully delivered by Scarlett Johansson); keeping track of a troubled project in the editing room (run, hilariously, by Frances McDormand); and daily visiting a priest in confessional (the sins of his job rate high on his conscience). Meanwhile, the Coen brothers have inserted a wildly implausible plotline about a group of communist screenwriters who want to take money from the capital-rich studio (not coincidently named “Capitol”) and give it to their comrades in Soviet Russia.

All of this makes Hail, Caesar! a loving sendup of old Hollywood, intricately arranged by the Coens. Anyone who loves early movies and filmmaking will treasure the slightly warped insights they’ve detailed. With replicated sound stages, soaring music, and rousing Busby Berkeley-style dance routines, it’s not important whether or not we identify Johansson’s character as an amalgam of Loretta Young and Esther Williams. Or if we sense the “communist” aspect as a factual representation of “blacklisting.” The depth of care that the Coens put into their background research is evident. Best of all, if you’ve ever wanted to see what a Hollywood movie lot looked like in its heyday, it’s right here, in glorious Technicolor.

So is the movie a bonafide biography? As the film’s cowboy star (Alden Ehrenreich) says (Yup, there are cowboys in Hail, Caesar!, too), “It’s complicated.”