From Golgotha to West Malibu….from Busby Berkeley to Preston Sturges to the near never-ending series of MGM musicals – if you are of a certain age, or are familiar with That’s Entertainment (from 1974), then this is an ideal film for you.
Actually Hail, Caesar begins in the confessional box in a church somewhere. It is 4 in the morning, and Eddie Mannix, played brilliantly by Josh Brolin is feeling the need to get something off his chest. It seems he’s been smoking due to the pressures of his work (running a major Hollywood studio), and he’s promised his wife that he had or would give up smoking.
So begins the Coen Brothers homage (or is it a send-up?) of the old Hollywood , circa early 1950’s, when the studios controlled the actors under the star system. Now Brolin’s Mannix runs Capitol Studios – a thinly disguised MGM – and answers only to an unseen head of the overall corporation who is based in New York or somewhere other than Hollywood.
In truth, this is a zany look at the movies from actual movies being shot – there are westerns, a biblical film (Hail, Caesar), light-hearted drawing-room comedies – many within the huge sound stages, and others on location on studio back-lots. We get to the editing process, the studio campus and commissary, and even the uniformed guard at the studio gate has a speaking role.
We get to watch a director struggling and failing to get an actor to effectively say something like, Would that it twere so simple.
But wait there’s more. There’s a kidnapping, there’s the threat of the Communist scourge, Mannix is doing a film (the film within the film that we are watching called Hail, Caesar – A Tale of the Christ) that requires him to sit down with a priest, a rabbi, a reverend, and a Greek Orthodox cleric and ask them if they’ve done a credible version of Jesus.
Now this scene falls a little short of being howlingly funny, and it is more like a take-off on an old joke – 4 clerics walk into a bar – only it is not a bar but an oak-panel board room of the film studio.