Meet Eddie Mannix, a legendary fixer from the Golden Age of Hollywood who serves as the hero of the Coen brothers’ new comedy, “Hail, Caesar!” Played with hard-bitten charm by Josh Brolin, Mannix is a stressed-out, guilt-wracked executive whose job is to lie to reporters, rough up his stars, pay off troublemakers and generally keep Capitol Pictures Studio running smoothly.
“It’s so hard,” he tells a priest in near tears. “I don’t know if I can keep doing it. But it seems right.”
Mannix is based only loosely on a real-life (and much more unsavory) figure who worked at MGM and reportedly wrecked many a life. Here, though, he’s a true believer in the magic of the movies, as are the Coen brothers. For the past 30-odd years, the writing-directing siblings have zigzagged through nearly every conceivable genre, from the neo-noir “Blood Simple” (1984) to the fictional biopic “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013). With “Hail, Ceasar!,” they get to put their unique stamp on classic Hollywood.
There’s a narrative here, though just barely. While shooting the Biblical epic that shares its title with this movie, screen star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, in fine comedic form) is kidnapped by Communists. While identical twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton, doubly magnificent) sniff around the story, Mannix gets down to business armed with only a suitcase full of cash and a mighty sense of purpose.
It’s all an excuse for Mannix (and us) to roam through Capitol Pictures and watch dreams being made. Scarlett Johansson plays DeeAnna Moran, an Esther Williams figure whose aquatic ballet (choreographed by Mesha Kussman) is a thing of weird beauty. Alden Ehrenreich is charm incarnate as Hobie Doyle, an aw-shucks Western star egregiously miscast in a drawing-room comedy (Ralph Fiennes, as its effete director, is priceless). Channing Tatum plays Burt Gurney, whose sailors-on-leave musical number, “No Dames!” (choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, of Broadway’s “Newsies”), is an absolute jaw-dropper.
“Hail, Caesar!” doesn’t deliver much of a story, or even put forth a coherent theme. In the studio-system days, it wouldn’t have made it past the first script reader. As a cinematic experience, though, it’s simply dazzling. “Hail, Caesar!” obeys the first commandment of filmmaking, attributed to the old master Billy Wilder: Thou shalt not bore.