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In Hail, Caesar!, the Coen Brothers Romp Through Old Hollywood 

click to enlarge Channing Tatum riffs on Gene Kelly in the Coen Brothers' latest, Hail, Caesar!.

Alison Cohen Rosa/Universal Pictures

Channing Tatum riffs on Gene Kelly in the Coen Brothers' latest, Hail, Caesar!.

It’s 1951, the Hollywood studio system is still at the height of its power, and Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is having a bad day. As the head of production at Capitol Pictures (yes, the same place that hired Barton Fink a few years earlier), Mannix has to deal with a pregnant, unmarried star (Scarlet Johansson), coach a singing cowboy miscast in a sophisticated comedy, distract a pair of vulture-like gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton), persuade a panel of clergy to give their stamp of approval to his forthcoming Biblical epic — and locate the missing star of said epic — while still finding time to go to confession daily to lament his inability to stop smoking.

There was in fact a real Eddie Mannix, a vice president at Metro Goldwyn Mayer from the silent days until his death in 1963. He went into Hollywood legend as a fixer, the man who kept MGM’s stable of stars out of the papers and sometimes out of jail. There are even rumors that he used criminal connections to permanently remove some threats to the studio’s wholesome image, but these are largely the stuff of legend. (The 2006 film Hollywoodland repeated a popular story that Mannix — played by Bob Hoskins — was behind the death of actor George Reeves.)

Brolin’s Mannix is a much less threatening figure, and Hail, Caesar!, the latest film from the always unpredictable Joel and Ethan Coen, makes him not the heavy, but rather the catalyst driving an all-star look at Hollywood’s past. It’s a satire of the production system and an affectionate tribute to the kind of filmmaking it nourished. (Cinematographer Roger Deakins is an essential collaborator, as he was on eleven previous Coen films.) There’s also a Hitchcock-inspired subplot involving the kidnapping (and political education) of the aforementioned absentee star (George Clooney, not quite as goofy as in previous Coen films, but blissfully slow-witted nonetheless), and, perhaps to shake off their work on the very un-Coenlike Bridge of Spies, a fair amount of humor based on the mostly exaggerated threat of Cold War-era Hollywood Reds infiltrating the film industry.

Much of the humor is gentle and cartoonish, such as the earnest floundering of cowboy Hobie Doyle (a fine performance by Alden Ehrenreich), and a stand-out musical number with Channing Tatum (imagine On the Town with a hint of homo-eroticism), worthy of Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly. As Hollywood spoofing goes, the tone is closer to Singin’ in the Rain than The Day of the Locust, yet the film raises a few sharp points about movie piety and the day-to-day business of producing fantasy for the masses.

The Coens have often displayed a wild sense of humor (sometimes too wild, as with Burn After Reading), and Hail, Caesar! follows in that broad tradition. But it also brings to mind the more inquisitive fatalism of their underrated 2009 film A Serious Man. Despite his Hollywood trappings and tough-guy determination, Brolin’s Mannix is a Cold War everyman, trying his best to keep his studio running smoothly when all the odds — Commies, irresponsible stars, egomaniacal directors, dirty laundry and whatever God he can get the most people to agree on — are against him. And for all their knowing recreations of film history and encyclopedic knowledge of popular culture, the Coens remain among the current cinema’s finest examiners of human nature.

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