Hail, Caesar!, the 17th feature from indefatigable screenwriting, directing and (pseudo-nonamously) editing brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, is rated PG-13 for "suggestive content and smoking." But save for one word — sodomy — and a few less clinical terms that have long been allowed on network TV, this genial farce set in 1950s Hollywood could've almost passed muster under the Hays Code. It follows a frantic couple of days in the life of Eddie Mannix, head of Physical Production for Capitol Pictures. Any resemblance between this character and the historical Eddie Mannix, a legendary "fixer" for MGM Studios during Hollywood's Golden Age, is purely ... well, the Coens would prefer you not ask such boring questions. But for what it's worth, movie-Mannix's boss also shares his name with a real-life showbiz mogul of antiquity, Nick Schenck.
While biographers and historians have linked the real Mannix to any number of dark deeds, his Hail, Caesar! alter ego is, surprisingly, not such a bad guy. As embodied by Josh Brolin, a leading man's man whose rugged charm was on full display in the Coens' 2007 best picture-winner No Country for Old Men, Eddie is wily enough to succeed in pictures, but decent so far as it goes: hardworking, fair to his employees, warm and respectful with his wife, a pragmatist with a conscience. (He's availing himself of the Catholic sacrament of penance when we meet him, in point of fact.) But he's no pushover: He keeps Capitol Pictures pictures on schedule and on budget, and Capitol Pictures stars out of jail and out of the papers. If that means manipulating reporters, or making the occasional on-the-spot cash contribution to the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, well, that's life in the Dream Factory.
Eddie finds his considerable problem-solving acumen tested when Baird Whitlock (game George Clooney, in his fourth Coen Bros. joint), the affable-but-dim star of Capitol's in-production religious epic Hail, Caesar!, is kidnapped. (Yes, Raising Arizona, Fargo and The Big Lebowski all turned on kidnappings, too. One suspects that both Coens carry ransom insurance.)
While Eddie hustles to recover his actor and to keep the incident under wraps, other production emergencies vie for his attention. For one thing, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johnansson), the star of family "aquatic pictures" featuring Busby Berkeley-style choreography, is twice-divorced and the mother of a child by a third man — which means Eddie needs her to choose a spouse, pronto, for image-maintenance purposes. (After she's pried out of her mermaid prosthetic, she gripes, "I don't think I'm gonna fit back in that fish ass again.") Then there's the matter of British director Laurence Laurentz -- played by Ralph Fiennes, whose walkabout into comedy in recent years is a boon to all humankind. Eddie has forced Laurentz to cast singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich, holding his own among much more famous company) in his Noel Coward-style Broadway adaptation Merrily We Dance. Turns out Hobie isn't nearly as comfortable gliding across a drawing room in a tuxedo as he is performing stunts on horseback.
While fighting all these fires, Eddie is also mulling a generous job offer from Lockheed Aircraft. More money, saner hours and, says the headhunter, a piece of the future. After all, who's going to keep going to the pictures once every American home has a television set?
This frantic action pauses from time to time to allow the Coens to clear their throats on subjects that only filmmakers as frugal and revered as these two may touch: Whitlock soaks up his captors' lectures on Marxism like a sponge -- they're a cabal of disgruntled screenwriters, naturally -- while Eddie wrangles the panel of clerics and rabbis he's convened to reassure him that Hail, Caesar! will not offend any person of faith with its depiction of Jesus Christ. (Whether the extras hanging on crucifixes are entitled to hardship pay is the kind of matter Eddie can resolve himself.) But whatever point the Coens are trying to make about the pageantry of belief systems, they never sacrifice buoyancy to make it.
Appropriately for a yarn about The Industry, some of the best scenes hail from the films within the film. The best of these is No Dames!, a sailors-on-shore-leave musical starring Bert Gurney (Channing Tatum, who is really a pretty good dancer. Who knew?). This long segment is even more homoerotic than the excerpts from Hail, Caesar! -- the Capitol Pictures Bible epic, I mean -- and is easily the most delightful production number in a major motion picture since the Coens' lifelong pal Sam Raimi shoehorned one into Spider-Man 3. It'll also make you miss the days long before the Age of Ultron, when movie titles had exclamation points instead of colons.
Hail, Caesar! doesn't have the weirdness of its authors' other Old Hollywood film, 1991's Barton Fink (which also concerned the fictitious Capitol Pictures), or the weary soul of their prior feature, 2013's haunting Inside Llewyn Davis. Its pleasures are piecemeal and peculiar, like the way Sir Michael Gambon, the film's narrator, elongates the phrase "in Westerly Malibu." Or the way Tilda Swinton plays a pair of identical -- and fiercely competitive -- twin gossip columnists. Or the way that a work print of Hail, Caesar! includes a title card reading DIVINE PRESENCE TO BE SHOT. They're not the types to go fumbling for profundity, those Coens. Profoundly funny will do.