The whirlwind experience of the Coen brothers' latest, Hail, Caesar!, is just life for Eddie Mannix, the film's centerpiece amidst a spider's web of subplots and sidebars all happening at Capitol Pictures in the 1950s. Mannix is having a crisis of conscience while he juggles the problems of movie stars. And he's primed to be cosmically humbled knowing the Coens' penchant for this brand of existential paralysis.
Joel and Ethan Coen are creatures of habit. They work to ask questions of fundamental truths. And the one they return to most often centers around our precarious place in the universe. Fate, coincidence, chance, whatever you want to call it, is out there and only one thing seems clear: We're not in control.
In Hail, Caesar! the Coens introduce Mannix (Josh Brolin) in a confessional. He's the head of production for Capitol, a MGM-like fictional studio and part of the Coens' universe having appeared in Barton Fink as well. Mannix, like nearly every character in this film, is an homage to a real-life person from film history. As production head, Mannix is really a "fixer," someone who keeps the private lives of his stars private. In doing so, he keeps his movies on schedule and his life in order.
We never learn why Mannix has started questioning things. Is it the overture from Lockheed Martin, offering him a "serious" job so he can get out of the "circus" of movie life? Is his faith betraying him? While Mannix sorts things out, he loses himself in the job and his thoughts.
The way Mannix operates, like a conductor, with his attention ahead while he sorts problems in the periphery, immediately recalls the work of M. Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel. That film and Hail, Caesar! operate in a controlled hysteria that propels both stories forward. They share other similarities as well (screwball dialogue, casting) and offer a drool-worthy fanboy possibility: The Coens may be tipping their caps to Wes Anderson.
Mannix's workday also allows the Coens to have plenty of fun. Anyone who loves movie history will appreciate the countless studio references. And the sheer amount of famous faces is incredible. Scarlett Johansson plays an Esther Williams-type star who's pregnant and not married. Channing Tatum dances like Fred Astaire. Alden Ehrenreich is Hobie Doyle, a western action star who can't act, according to his new director Lawrence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). Off-set, Mannix sets Hobie up with actress Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio) so both can change images. All this time, Eddie is threatened by twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton in dual roles) about an old rumor newly confirmed about MGM's biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Mannix is ahead of the game on all counts. Except for one. Whitlock has just been kidnapped by an outfit called "The Future" and Capitol's biggest picture of the year, Hail Caesar!, is about to be delayed.
The huge amount of characters and sub-plots in Hail, Caesar! is remarkable and even more so when you realize it mirrors everything the Coens are doing as well. They're weaving genres, from screwball to noir, and introducing characters and ideas that have layered meanings in every instance. They stage large-scale recreations of Hollywood films of the past, including Bathing Beauty, Anchors Aweigh, and Ben-Hur, just to set up well-placed jokes. The Bathing Beauty-inspired sequence, for example, is a reference to Busby Berkeley, but also to Coen canon (the dream sequences of The Big Lebowski). That kind of stuff is crack for film geeks. Immediately, I wondered if the movie slipped into a dream. And the punch line when it happens, which I won't spoil here, hit home that much harder.
Also worth mentioning: Hail, Caesar! has knockout performances all around, but Ehrenreich really shows something. He's an actor to watch. It also contains one of the funniest scenes in recent movie memory. For insurance on his new movie, Mannix gathers a Catholic priest, a Greek Orthodox priest, a Protestant minister, and a rabbi to tell him whether any reasonable person of faith might be offended by the script, which (like Ben-Hur) features a Christ character. The combination of the terms "religion" and "reasonable" in the same breathing space creates a mad free for all both onscreen and in our own minds.
For Mannix, his struggle mirrors the plights of Coen heroes like Barton Fink, Dude, Ed Crane, Larry Gopnik, Llewyn Davis and others. He's a tiny part of a much bigger machine at work. His decision then is whether or not to believe in what he's doing and trudge ahead. Whether Mannix ever thought his job held meaning is inconsequential. It's what he decides now that will speak to his future. Hail, Caesar! unfurls like a wound mystery and comes complete with a typically resolute Coen ending you may not fully understand but can feel. It's the magic of the movies, believe in it.