Eddie Mannix? I hadn't. He worked in the film industry for years as a "fixer," making problems go away for Hollywood studios with its stars, productions and films so everything ran as smoothly as possible. A natural idea for a feature flick, right? You bet. Here's the latest from the Coen brothers, 2016's Hail, Caesar!
Working for a major Hollywood film studio in the early 1950's, fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is good at what he does. No, he's great. If a problem comes up with a movie in production or the studio's stable of stars, Eddie pulls some strings, pays off this guy, massages this situation...and poof, it's gone! Well, there's a pretty big problem. One of the biggest stars on the lot, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), has gone missing with no trace. Baird is starring in the studio's blockbuster biblical epic in the lead role and every hour he's missing is costing oodles of money. No one's quite sure what happened until Eddie receives a ransom note demanding $100,000 for a group called 'The Future.' What to do? Eddie gets the money from the studio to pay them off, but that's just the start of his problems as all sorts of drama appears around the studio lots.
The idea for this film dates back to the early 2000's when the brother director duo, Joel and Ethan Coen, originally intended to do a like-minded film set in the 1920's about a play based in biblical times. It sat around for years before the brothers finally tackled it again and here's the finished product. The Coen brothers and their films can be an acquired, oddball taste so here's a quick moral of the story. If you like their previous movies (especially their comedies), you'll like/love 'Hail.' If not, it's probably more of a mixed bag.
What appealed to me most about this film was the absolute love the Coen brothers have for film and movie history. 'Hail' is set in Hollywood's Golden Age of Film when studios ran things with an iron fist, where stars were owned by said studios, and America was still (well, mostly so) innocent and naive. Even when they're having fun in quasi-spoof form, there is evident love of the history of film everywhere. Much of it -- as the Coens are known for -- is snappy, knowing dialogue throughout, brief asides, seemingly throwaway lines, underplayed deliveries that pay huge dividends. It's also the look of the film with cinematographer Roger Deakins (he's kinda good) giving the story a distinct visual look that changes from scene-to-scene in a good way. The same for Carter Burwell's score (another Coen favorite) that is able to delicately bounce among genres from epic to western, heavy drama to musicals.
In basically a complete departure from his previous pairing with the Coens, No Country for Old Men (he also worked with them in True Grit), Josh Brolin gets to play the straight man through all the lunacy and craziness as studio fixer Eddie Mannix. Oh, and he still manages to get some laughs along the way. He's the heart of the movie, the baseline it always comes back to. It's fun watching him navigate one perilous situation after another seamlessly, always knowing what to do, how to fix it and most importantly, how to spin it. The most important part of the character? It is something that reflects the general tone of the movie. Through all the craziness thrown his way, Eddie loves movies and what they represent to audiences. Maybe all the drama and long hours he goes through wouldn't be worth it to many people, but Eddie Mannix loves films and the feelings they can produce in its audiences. A bit of a thankless part but one Brolin manages to make his own.
The movie as a whole is more of an ensemble though. Brolin's Eddie is the point man, navigating us through one studio situation after another. The biggest focus goes to that actor named George Clooney who you may have heard of. His Baird Whitlock is a great character, a bit of a doof, a pretty actor, and a tad on the naive side. I don't want to give away who/what kidnapped him, but it provides some truly funny moments as Baird gets duped into the plan. As for the rest of the ensemble, there's Scarlett Johansson in Esther Williams mode, Ralph Fiennes as an English director of spectacle films, Channing Tatum in Gene Kelly mode, Tilda Swinton in dueling roles as twin sister gossip columnists, Frances McDormand as a mousy film editor, and Jonah Hill as an accountant of sorts who helps the studio get themselves out of a variety of different jams. These are all smaller parts though so don't expect it to be a Channing Tatum movie or Scarlett Johansson movie. These are the definition of supporting parts.
By far though, the best performance here goes to Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, a star of B-westerns in the vein of Gene Autry/Hopalong Cassidy/Roy Rogers. A man of few words on-screen, Hobie is forced to take part in a very distinguished, high-class film -- directed by Fiennes -- that...well, makes him talk. What a hilarious character, and it works so well because Hobie seems like such a genuinely nice young actor, especially on his date with a Carmen Miranda-inspired actress (Veronica Osorio). There's not much meanness in Hobie, just a nice guy thrust into some Hollywood dramatics. His enunciation scene with Fiennes is sublimely perfect and perfectly underplayed. No matter who he's on-screen with, Ehrenreich steals those scenes and makes it look easy as he does it.
The ensemble leans toward a story with more moments than a linear plot. 'Hail' has all these great singular moments that work exceptionally well. Mannix sitting down with representatives of different churches to see if their prestige biblical epic is God-approved is priceless. Tatum's "On the Town" dance scene is ripe with innuendos and judged solely as a choreographed dance scene, a treat to watch. Johansson's swim scene looks ripped out of an Esther Williams movie, albeit with a great twist as a capper. The movie is full of these memorable moments from one scene to another that makes it fun to see where things will go next, regardless of a less than pointed, linear story. The Coen brothers script and a remarkably talented cast holds it all together and then some.
Fair warning, it will probably help your enjoyment here if you have some knowledge of Hollywood and film history. 'Hail' isn't necessarily a laugh out loud comedy. It gets its laughs from a sly line here, a clever reference there, a line inflection that brings that line to life. If you're a fan of film and movies in general, the guts and business of making those movies, Hail, Caesar! is for you. It isn't doing so hot in theaters, but I absolutely loved it. Highly recommended!
Hail, Caesar! (2016): *** 1/2 /****