Coen Brothers make a farce of old Hollywood
Eddie Mannix is a quasi-legendary figure from the history of Hollywood in its glory days, the thirties and forties. He was a longtime executive with MGM, and was known mainly as a “fixer”—the man in charge of protecting the studio’s public image by making sure that the felonious and/or scandalous conduct of actors and other studio employees reached neither the courts nor the newspapers.
In the new Coen Brothers film, Hail, Caesar!, Mannix is played by Josh Brolin and he’s the central figure in a sort of three-ring circus, a multicharacter comedy/drama set in Hollywood circa 1947. In this telling, his fixer duties have him working every waking hour in crisis mode, and actual Hollywood history is only indirectly on hand. But that still leaves plenty of room for an assortment of comic-satiric escapades, and a sketchy personal crisis or two for the Mannix character.
The film’s title is also the title of a film within the film, a Biblical epic set in ancient Rome. That fictional production serves as a farcical parody of the Ben-Hur genre and provides a major plot point when its erratic star actor (George Clooney) suddenly disappears before shooting is complete.
The Coens’ other parody/pastiche concoctions include a lavish musical number with a full crew of sailors dressed in white and a somewhat Teutonic dancer (Channing Tatum) in the lead role. There’s also a cheapo Western starring a hunky hillbilly (Alden Ehrenreich), and a surreal aquatic ballet with the slatternly DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) playing a mermaid.
Plus, there’s a group of “communist” screenwriters conspiring to create some revolutionary action from a secluded beach house in Malibu. And two spiteful gossip columnists who are sisters and rivals (both played by Tilda Swinton) keep trying to uncover the very things that Mannix is busy covering up. Frances McDormand is very good in an otherwise gratuitous turn as a chain-smoking film editor.
Ehrenreich’s klutzy cowboy abides with the studio’s attempts to make him the star of a high-toned drawing room romance, and then ambles out on his own to rescue Baird Whitlock (Clooney) from his unwitting seclusion. The climax of the “commie” subplot plays like a parody of World War II-era submarine pictures.
There’s lots of rambunctious fun in Hail, Caesar!, but not much more than that. A fuller rendition of Mannix’s life story might have been very interesting indeed, but here the Coen Brothers seem to have decided that the dark side of Hollywood is no country for them.