Capital Pictures boss Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is having a crisis – multiple crises, if we’re being truthful. Aquatic musical performer DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is about to have her golden image tarnished by an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) can’t quite make the leap from playing a singing cowboy to headlining a stuffy British drama, and Capital’s biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), has disappeared without a trace just days before wrapping production on a surefire hit.
When a ransom note arrives from a mysterious group calling themselves “The Future” and demanding a huge cash payoff for Whitlock’s safe return, Mannix finds himself juggling nosy journalists, irritable producers and incessantly needy performers just to keep things afloat. Suddenly, that job offer he received during a clandestine lunch meeting is starting to sound a lot more attractive…
Each of these stories – and a few others – are given just enough screen time to squeeze out a few laughs before Mannix is whisked away to solve another problem, leaving Hail, Caesar! to feel more like a collection of vignettes than a cohesive tale. But the real joy here is watching well-known stars taking on classic Hollywood archetypes, such as Tilda Swinton’s turn as a pair of Hedda Hopper-esque gossip columnists, or Channing Tatum’s nod to Gene Kelly with an extended – and undeniably enjoyable – tap dancing routine.
No one knows how to mine humor from absurdity quite like Joel and Ethan Coen, and with the duo setting their sights on the Golden Age of Hollywood, it’s hard to think of a better recipe for success. Everyone here is firing on all cylinders, with Clooney mugging for the camera and Brolin knocking some sense into unruly movie stars with a few well-placed backhands. But it’s Ehrenreich who will likely be the most talked-about member of the cast, earning some of the film’s biggest laughs in a hilariously awkward conversation with an impatient director (Ralph Fiennes).
With both films set during the same time era and exploring a few similar themes, Hail, Caesar! will inevitably draw comparisons to Trumbo. But whereas the latter tried to paint a (mostly) accurate depiction of real-life people and events, the Coens are content to use authenticity as a jumping-off point, creating a bigger, louder, even more ridiculous version of Old Hollywood. Hail, Caesar! may not reach the comedic heights of The Big Lebowski or O Brother, Where Art Thou, but it’s still a refreshing change of pace after the more somber material the brothers have explored recently.
Playing more like a collection of vignettes than a cohesive narrative, the film still marks a welcome return to comedy for Joel and Ethan Coen. The ensemble cast is great, but even more enjoyable is the stylized recreation of Hollywood's Golden Age.