For the first 15 minutes of Hail, Caesar! you might wonder if the Coens have gone over to that same dark side that motivated their lame Clooney-as-divorce-lawyer comedy Intolerable Cruelty or the Clooney-as-spy Burn After Reading. By the end, however, the audience was howling appreciation for the lovely Coen-esque surreal turns, including a Malibu Commie writer’s colony, a character named Professor Marcuse, and a pan-religious conference on images of Jesus held in a movie studio conference room. It ends a festival of low-high humor as thoroughly exemplified by the scene in which Frances McDormand as a cigarette-sucking film editor nearly dies for her art.
This is the Coens’ second venture into movie-studio craziness — Barton Fink provides a darker, tormented version of same — and instead of the life of the mind, this one gazes deep into the realms of legends, myths, big theories, and the dream factory, though constantly counterbalancing it all with human-foible fodder. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, who needs to solve a host of wacky problems and one potential disaster when big star Baird Whitlock (Clooney) is ransomed by a group that calls itself The Future. Meanwhile, a straight-outta-Capra character named Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) threatens to cover the whole film in sweetness.
You might think of Hail, Caesar! as a surreal companion piece to Trumbo, or The Player as produced by Mel Brooks. Of all the films in the Coen canon, though, it seems closest to The Hudsucker Proxy, a big confection with a number of themes and running jokes weaved intricately through the film. Unlike anything previously made, Hail, Caesar! is free from gratuitous pain. Even Lebowski had a death and a bit-off ear. This movie has Channing Tatum tap-dancing in a sailor suit, and it doesn’t need much more to be perfect fun.