There are the serious Coen brothers movies, like “No Country for Old Men” and, um, “A Serious Man,” and there are the not-so-serious ones. “Hail, Caesar!” is the opposite of their serious ones, and it is delightful.
It’s a Hollywood farce set in the Golden Age, circa 1950-something or other, but it lacks the acrid fire and brimstone of 1991’s “Barton Fink,” their last visit to these parts. That was 25 years ago, and the brothers have mellowed. Now the hero is a studio “fixer” named Eddie Mannix, and he’s played by the increasingly wonderful Josh Brolin with a neat little moustache and exasperated expression that render him a ringer for the 1940s comedy director Preston Sturges. Since it was a movie within a Sturges movie that provided the Coens with a title for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” this hardly counts as a coincidence.
Eddie’s life is a mess, horrible for him, happy for us. DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), the swimming star of aquatic musicals, is pregnant by who knows whom, and a solution has to be found. (“Can a woman adopt her own baby?” Eddie asks a studio lawyer, and if you happen to know that Loretta Young did just that with her love child by Clark Gable, you’re allowed an extra chortle into your popcorn.)
The head office in New York has decided to remake the studio’s singing cowboy, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), into a tuxedoed star of drawing-room dramas, to the shock of everyone including Hobie and his new director, who’s named Laurence Laurentz and who is played by Ralph Fiennes as a distant cousin of M. Gustave of the Grand Budapest Hotel.
Oh, and Capitol Studios’ biggest star, a dim second-tier Gable named Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), has been kidnapped from the set of the religious epic — called “Hail, Caesar!,” which means as little as anything here — in which he plays a Roman centurion who falls under the sway of Jesus Christ.
If I tell you that one of the kidnappers is played by Wayne Knight (Newman!) in full Roman extra regalia (or “extry,” as Hobie would say), you’ll have a vague sense of the gamesmanship in which this movie blissfully indulges. “Hail, Caesar!” finds the Coens in complete control of their shared gift with no aim in sight but to spoof and celebrate the classic studio era of which they were never a part. If you get the historical Hollywood in-jokes, so much the better. (A conference room where every photo on the wall is of Wallace Beery, the John C. Reilly of the 1930s? Sign me up.) If you don’t, no matter — the sight gags, throwaway lines, and surprise appearances are calibrated to land with lunatic precision.
Most importantly, this one movie allows the bros to make all the other movies they’ve never had a chance to. There’s a parody western in “Hail, Caesar!,” and a watery Busby Berkeley ballet. There’s that full-color religious epic and a B&W drawing-room romance, and there’s an absolute showstopper of an MGM musical number that allows a particular young movie star to show off his dance chops in a way the “Step Up” and “Magic Mike” movies rarely do.
I think “Hail, Caesar!” is what the Coen brothers do for vacation.
Added benefits: Tilda Swinton as rival twin gossip columnists, Jonah Hill as a studio functionary who helpfully meets the legal definition of personhood, Frances McDormand as a film editor with a homicidal Moviola, and a room full of Communist screenwriters who patiently explain to the kidnapped Baird the link between Capitol Pictures and Marx’s “Das Kapital.”
In the end, and despite the script’s flirtations with notions of faith, “Hail, Caesar!” doesn’t go anywhere profound. It doesn’t really want to. Knowing the back story of the real Eddie Mannix, as recently detailed in Episode 63 of Karina Longworth’s indispensable Hollywood-history podcast “You Must Remember This,” reveals an MGM “fixer” who cut a much darker figure than the one in the film. Proceed with caution and be glad he never crossed your path.
What the Coens are about, instead, is enjoying a long, luxurious soak in the pleasures of craft, both as they were perfected in the inhuman factories of the studio system and as they are practiced today in the hands of cinematographers (Roger Deakins), production designers (Jess Gonchor), soundtrack composers (Carter Burwell), costume designers (Mary Zophres), and on and on, everyone humming along at the top of their games.
“Hail, Caesar!” is nothing more and nothing less than a profession of the Coens’ faith in movies, as snarky and sincere as they can make it. It don’t mean a thing, but it sure has that swing.
★ ★ ★ ½
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton. Boston Common, Fenway, Coolidge Corner, suburbs. 106 minutes. PG-13 (suggestive content, smoking).