Hail, Caesar! Reveals the Most Important Job of the Hays Code Era of Filmmaking

If one thinks that spinning the sordid personal lives of celebrities now is an impossible feat, look only to the Golden Age of Hollywood to see that the problems of masking celebrity “quirks” were tenfold. Hence the necessity of the profession of being, quite literally, Mr. Fix It. In this case, that person is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a problem-solver by nature, and a man who has a lot of evident Catholic guilt (particularly about lying to his wife regarding quitting smoking). But when he’s not at the confessional, he spends his time, essentially, as a glorified babysitter for the major stars of Capitol Pictures.

Because it’s Joel and Ethan Coen, the subject matter of Hail, Caesar! is explored with particular knowledgeabilty and–rather than the usual nostalgia that gets bestowed upon this era of moviemaking–tongue-in-cheek contempt for the absurdity of having to put such a thick veneer over reality, not only in terms of the films released by the studio, but the lives of the stars themselves.

As Mannix toys with the notion of accepting a handsome career offer from Lockheed, the recruiter of which dismisses the notion that there is any future in cinema with TV on the rise, he is dealt the unfortunate blow of “losing” the star of Capitol Pictures’ overbudgeted Hail, Caesar!, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). After Baird is drugged by two infiltrating extras who kidnap the star to take back to their communist lair in Malibu, all hell breaks loose. Made up of a group of primarily screenwriters who want to take back what’s theirs from the bourgeois known as “the studio system,” Baird begins to take a shine to the “kooky” sense of writers like Fred (Fred Melamed) and Benedict (Patrick Fischler), as he sits back and relaxes for the duration of his captivity.

In between worrying about how to position Esther Williams-inspired DeeAnna Morgan’s (Scarlett Johansson) impending pregnancy and where in L.A. Baird could have possibly scampered off to, Mannix must also stave off gossip columnists/twin sisters, Thora Thacker and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), created with the Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons rivalry in mind. And yet, regardless of all these fires in need of being put out, Mannix continues to be overtly enamored of his job, at least relieving some of the stress by confiding in Western-turned- drama star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) that a ransom request of $100,000 from “The Future” has been made in return for Baird’s freedom.

Meanwhile, C.C. Calhoun (Coen brothers staple Frances McDormand), an Edith Head-like editor, serves to de-glamorize the nature of film editing as well, getting her scarf stuck in the reel as she tries her best to make Hobie’s performance as a “serious” actor come off. It is brief appearances like these that make Hail, Caesar! so rich with believability (in spite of the absurdity of the plot) and thoroughness. Even the need for shyster surety agents like Joseph Silverman (Jonah Hill) is covered with one-two punch brevity as he agrees to adopt DeeAnna Morgan’s child so that she can later claim she adopted the child from him in order to stave off rumors of an out-of-wedlock marriage.

Treating each minor subplot in the larger web of communist subterfuge with the utmost of care, the Coen brothers weave together a tale that could have easily transpired during the initiation of the Red Scare, even the part where musical actor Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) turns out to be a major player in the plot to turn the entire studio system commie.

With its emphasis on an extremely transitional time in the industry–1951, to be exact, which was incidentally the year I Love Lucy premiered to only further make television more alluring–Hail, Caesar! is like some elaborate, warped combination of Trumbo, Hollywoodland and The Black Dahlia that firmly knocks the Golden Age of Hollywood off of its pedestal.