The last thing a critic expects at the start of a new year – the traditional burial ground for rotting digital corpses – is a major movie from major filmmakers. But that's what you get in Hail, Caesar!, a wild whoosh of Coen brothers wizardry that left me laughing helplessly and filled with spiritual dread. That's the Coens for you. Here, Ethan and Joel are messing with our heads more in the rat-a-tat style of The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona and Burn After Reading than, say, Fargo or Barton Fink. But you'll still need to buckle up.
Hail, Caesar! is set in 1951 Hollywood, when studios turned out movies on an assembly line that sometimes, often accidentally, produced art. The irony is that making movies is often easier than keeping the talent in line. That task falls to Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio fixer who can't let the gossips – the brilliant Tilda Swinton plays two of them – know which star is secretly cheating or pregnant or gay or crazy or a Commie bastard.
Hail, Caesar! is basically a day in the life of this studio cop, whose job is his religion. And Brolin, in a heart-and-soul performance, takes this crazy quilt of a movie about a man surrounded by nut jobs and plays it for real. He's just tremendous.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned" are the first words we hear from Mannix, a married Catholic who exasperates his priest in Confession by asking forgiveness on an almost daily basis. On his own, Eddie is an insecure mess. Prowling the studio, he's a scary lion.
He has to be. Working for Capitol Pictures makes this ex-bouncer an executive baby-sitter. And what babies. Scarlett Johansson is a treat as the studio's swim-star sweetheart (think Esther Williams) with a mouth like a gun moll. Channing Tatum is a knockout as a song-and-dance man (think Gene Kelly) with a political agenda. Tatum so nails his joyous tap routine with a chorus of sailors that you long to see a musical built around him.
And cheers to the terrific Alden Ehrenreich as the studio's cowboy star (think Roy Rogers), a drawling rube who is forced to star as an urban sophisticate, a role for which he is unforgettably unsuited. It's howlingly funny to watch a vexed Brit director (a priceless Ralph Fiennes) guide him through countless takes of the line "Would that it 'twere so simple." The scene is one for the comedy time capsule.
You don't really notice a plot until the studio's star of stars, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), gets kidnapped during production of a biblical epic called Hail, Caesar! Clooney has a blast adding Whitlock to the series of idiots he's played for the Coens (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty). It's blasphemous fun watching him blow his lines in a cathartic scene with a crucified Christ.
Whitlock takes nothing seriously, not even being a hostage. That's why Mannix roughs him up hard. Trying to stay moral in this Hollywood Babylon, Mannix wrestles with a cosmic question: Should he put his faith in the God of Job or the unseen studio deity who phones in his commandments?
Mannix sweats it. Maybe the Coens do too. But their film never loses its exhilarating buoyancy. The Coens love these debauched children and the genre films they turn out with such batshit glee. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, production designer Jess Gonchor and costume designer Mary Zophres create visual bliss. Hail, Caesar! is a valentine to on-the-fly filmmaking, from two control freaks. And everything, nihilistic despair included, works like a charm. It's not easy to whip up a fizzy throwaway that's also a serious pleasure. Would that it 'twere so simple. Yet the Coens pull it off in style. They're indispensable.