Due to my avoiding of as much of the trailers and released promotional materials as possible of movies nowadays, my view of Hail, Caesar! was a bit skewed. Ironically, I saw this trailer a ton from going to the theatre a ton over the past few months, probably more than others, and it mainly outlined the story of George Clooney’s top star actor of the 1950s character of Baird Whitlock being abducted by this mysterious group while Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix, an influencer in Hollywood, was tasked with getting him back, and then with this being a Coen’s brothers movie we’d be introduced to a cavalcade of wacky characters and such along the way. While this is true, the film is more specifically about filtering the eyes of Hollywood through Mannix’s eyes by going through all these Hollywood specific problems he has to deal with, with Whitlock’s kidnapping just another element of it.
In the end, it’s not much of a spoiler, but the whole Whitlock kidnapping is a non-starter. He gets abducted by some Communists, is a little unsure of everything, but then eventually becomes swayed by their ideals and then he just eventually gets rescued while the Communists are out dropping one of their members off on a Russian sub (yep). There is no big showdown, fist or gun fight or one-on-one battle, nope, Whitlock just gets rescued being left alone in his captor’s house, and that’s that for what you originally would think would be the main thrust of the picture.
Of course there are other stories, including Hobie Doyle an actor specifically skilled to play basic cowboy roles being thrust into a serious dramatic role which includes things he’s not used to like speaking… He thus finds himself more embroiled in stereotypical “Hollywood” in getting set up on dates to make his image look good and just generally trying to get by in the business on his good boy charm. Scarlett Johansson is in briefly as DeeAnna Moran a famous star whose new pregnancy causes the studio to scramble to cover it by hooking her up with a partner or making her adopt her own kid to look good in PR. We see a glimpse of Channing Tatum’s character of Burt Gurney who of course is a skilled dancer and singer and of course ends up being the leader of the Communists who abducted Whitlock and the same guy who gets dropped off at the sub.
Writing out these storylines they seem kinda boring and seemingly having no juice to use as a storyline in a movie where really not much actually happens or even really that much positive or negative and everything really just ends up pretty neutral at the end of things. This being the Coen’s it’s not that straightforward and tedious, where going through the ride of the film it eventually becomes quite evident that it’s very happy to remain so small, and never is a big sweeping epic with large plot or scene set pieces (besides the literal films), but everything works fine enough that way. Everything is very small scale and eventually reverts back to the status quo, something I’m sure that was prevalent in the minds of the Coen’s when they made this a commentary of Hollywood at the time and the business in general.
In other hands this wouldn’t work so well, but the Coen’s are skilled enough to make the small-scale minutiae work so well and the cast is all game and so seemingly of the area that they make everything work where their commitment would cover holes, if any. On first glance it still feels like one of the lesser Coen films, even though there is a lot to like in what they generally do with their lighter films, but is still a worthy addition to their catalogue, especially with the ones where they like to put the fun out forefront with the more serious issues bubbling just underneath.