"Hail, Caesar!" indeed.
Created by Joel and Ethan Coen, those mighty monarchs of sendups and satires, this droll tribute to and spoof of Hollywood past amuses from beginning to end with its site specific re-creation of the studio system and the movies that made it famous. A hipster mash note to the way things used to be, it will put a smile on your face and keep it there for the duration.
Deft movie business comedies are a hardy perennial, from the classics "Show People" and "Bombshell" through the more recent "Hollywood Boulevard" and "The Big Picture." And the Coens have been there before, with 1991's considerably bleaker "Barton Fink."
Though the brothers did their share here, writing, producing and directing as well as jointly editing under their usual Roderick Jaynes pseudonym, they were helped enormously by a splendid and committed ensemble cast.
Top-lined by Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Frances McDormand and Jonah Hill, the film's actors, up to and including even the smallest speaking parts, were as deliciously in on the joke as the Coens.
Speaking of jokes, the Coens' smart script is filled, especially in its names, with all manner of inside jokes and playful references to real people and places, including New Left philosopher Herbert Marcuse and the venerable Sunset Strip eatery Imperial Gardens.
When an up-and-coming actress (Veronica Osorio), talks about dancing with fruit on her head, the reference is to Carmen Miranda but film buffs will know that the actress' name, Carlotta Valdez, is at the heart of Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo." And so on.
But the great thing about "Hail, Caesar!" is that it is fun whether you get all its references or not. Loving re-creations of classic Hollywood entertainments and lines like "Forgive me, father, I have sinned, I struck a movie star in anger" cannot fail to entertain, they really can't.
There is also a nominal whodunit element to "Hail, Caesar!" involving the mysterious kidnapping of top star Baird Whitlock (Clooney at his daftest), the lead of the Roman epic ("A Tale of the Christ" is its "Ben-Hur"-ish subtitle) which gives this film its name. But finding out where Whitlock was taken and why is only one of the film's pleasures.
The actual plot centers on a day, circa 1951, in the life of Eddie Mannix (a fine all--business performance from Brolin), the president of physical production for Capitol Pictures, the studio last seen in "Barton Fink." (The character is named after a real person who did a similar job for MGM.)
A man with a gift for problem-solving, Mannix, put upon by circumstances like many Coen heroes, has difficulties thrown at him around the clock. He saves a naive starlet from French postcard ignominy, deals with identical twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both deliciously played by Swinton) who hate each other's guts and conducts a clergy focus group about the portrayal of Jesus in "Hail, Caesar!" ("God is a bachelor," a rabbi grouses. "He doesn't have children").
What Mannix mostly does is oversee the production of Capitol's pictures, which gives the Coens the opportunity to show off their versions of classic Hollywood genres, including biblical epics like the title film, which calls for a visit to the editing room of the veteran C.C Calhoun (McDormand on point as usual.)
Mannix visits the set of an elaborate aquatic production number, a dead ringer for the sequence Busby Berkeley choreographed in "Million Dollar Mermaid" (and beautifully photographed here by Coens' veteran Roger Deakins.) But instead of Esther Williams, Mannix faces off against tough-talking DeeAnna Moran (Johansson), who has trouble fitting in her costume because of a weight gain the morals squad would not approve of.
The production president also looks over another number that owes a debt to Berkeley. It stars Burt Gurney (Tatum), dancing like Gene Kelly but looking like Tyrone Power and re-creating a number inspired by the one Berkeley choreographed for James Cagney in "Footlight Parade." You get the idea.
Despite the good work of all these big names, the best of the bunch might be Ehrenreich as slow-talking, quick-grinning Hobart "Hobie" Doyle, Capitol's ace singing cowboy who gets tapped to leave the sagebrush behind and don a tuxedo to star in a drawing room drama helmed by Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes), a man whose name he can't even pronounce.
As these examples, hilariously constructed by production designer Jess Gonchor and costume designer Mary Zophres, attest, the Coens not surprisingly have a sophisticated understanding of Hollywood's ways and means and the ability to make them fun.
Although the brothers have at times seemed to be making films only for each other, "Hail, Caesar!," a bit like "O Brother, Where Art Thou" before it, wants everyone near and far to come in and enjoy the party. They're having the time of their lives, and we're all fortunate enough to be invited to share in the fun.