Hollywood in the 1930’s. Of course now everybody knows about the festering cesspool of filthy secrets bubbling beneath the surface but back then America’s starlets and stars had to appear as squeaky clean as possible to the movie going public and that was the job of a hard case like Capitol Pictures Head of Talent Relations Eddie Mannix. But now in addition to his usual duties of keeping Directors, Actors and Gossip Columnists from literally and figuratively killing him, themselves or each other, Eddie has an even bigger problem. With only a day left of shooting a mega budget swords and sandals epic the studio’s biggest star Baird Whitlock has gone missing and the only clue to his whereabouts is a ransom note sent from a shadowy cabal initially known only as “The Future”.
If you think this sounds like the premise for an achingly dark and nihilistic noir in the Chinatown mold you’d be wrong. Filmmaking national treasures and jacks of all trades Joel and Ethan Coen have chosen to make a madcap, screwball comedy in the vein of Raising Arizona and Burn After Reading out of this original concept, as opposed to a blood soaked crime drama like Fargo or No Country For Old Men. An incredibly game all-star cast keep the proceedings light even as mysterious layers of the noir lasagna at hand continue to be piled on, though many of the top lined performances (Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill) amount to little more than extended cameos. The standout here is relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich as a cowboy actor who the studio is awkwardly trying to shoehorn into prestige pictures, and one of only a few of Mannix’s clients that he can actually trust. Josh Brolin as Mannix himself is at his usual tough guy best, though with the extra wrinkle of being a man surrounded by debauchery whose greatest vice is smoking behind his wife‘s back, and George Clooney as his dunderheaded quarry delivers some of the film’s most hilarious material.
If I had one complaint about the movie it’s that the brisk 100 minute run time feels like it leaves so much of the dense mythology the Coens have quickly developed here yet to be explored. I was surprised to learn that this was an original story as opposed to a novel adaptation, given that the overall vibe called to mind 2014’s Inherent Vice, where the absurdly comedic Hollywood mystery at hand felt somewhat disjointed due to connective tissue from the literary work presumably being left on the cutting room floor in the interest of an easily digestible run time. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to revisit this world at some point, as FX’s critically acclaimed TV Series has done with the Coen’s aforementioned Fargo. I guess being left wanting more is a good gripe to have about modern studio fare though, especially in a post-Apatow era where most mainstream comedies usually feel about 30 minutes too long.
Hail, Caesar! opens everywhere this Friday.