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The films of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen identify and grapple with life’s biggest questions: Who are we? What is our relationship to the world? And is life worth living in the end? Their answers vary. Some of their best films take solace in humanity’s most ancient and cherished conventions—marriage (Fargo, Intolerable Cruelty) and children (Raising Arizona)—while others stare straight into the void, begging for an answer that never comes (No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis).
Their latest film, the star-studded comedy Hail, Caesar!, straddles the divide. It teaches you how to watch it, challenging with its form while reassuring with its content. The film spans a few days in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who runs Capitol Pictures in 1930s Hollywood. Mannix’s official duties are never delineated, but that only underscores his importance. His chief duty seems to be making sure the actors, who have a knack for getting themselves into trouble, show up for work and stay out of the gossip columns. Brolin plays Mannix as an amalgam of classic Hollywood archetypes: He has the ferocity of a muscle-for-hire type, the keen insight of a private eye, and even the warm, gooey center of an earnest schoolkid. A brief scene at his home offers a glimpse of the husband and father he could have been had he chosen a less batty profession.
As he goes throughout his day, a plot emerges: Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has been drugged and kidnapped by a mysterious group known only as “The Future.” They demand a ransom, but the Coens avoid the conventions of a kidnapping movie. They meander their way through several subplots, including the story of a starlet (Scarlett Johannson) with a bun in the oven and no father to show for it; the frustrations of an effete English director (Ralph Fiennes) and his hayseed lead actor (Aiden Ehrenreich); and Mannix’s secret meetings with an aviation company executive, who is trying to lure him away from show business with a promise of riches and a calmer life.
But each one of these subplots is like a red herring from a bad B-movie. The Coens, for once, aren’t interested in plot at all, instead choosing to luxuriate in the styles of yesteryear. Johansson and Channing Tatum get to do glamorous musical numbers; Clooney has a ball with his swords-and-sandals epic; and Whitlock’s kidnappers find themselves in a pre-Cold War spy movie when they rendezvous with a submarine off the coast of Malibu. Ultimately, Hail, Caesar! isn’t just aping or satirizing the classic genres of Old Hollywood; it’s embracing and emulating them, throwing irony aside in favor of gusto and gravitas.
In the end, it grapples with the same themes the Coens have returned to for the past three decades, applying them, for the first time, to the very business of their life’s work. The question that sits at the heart of the film is whether Mannix’s job is worth doing, and if the movie business itself is worth fighting for.
At one point, a Communist begins lecturing Mannix on the evils of an industry that claims a mantle of populism but really only serves the financial interests of the studio chiefs. It’s a convincing argument but one that Mannix has no use for. He slaps some sense into him, comically demonstrating to the viewer that the best way to maintain the status quo—and ensure that life remains worth living—is not to think about it too hard.
Hail, Caesar! opens Friday at Landmark’s Bethesda Row, AMC Mazza Gallerie, AMC Courthouse Plaza, Regal Hyattsville Royale, and AMC Loews Georgetown.