Eddie Mannix had a life fit for a movie: He was a studio executive who worked the press to protect the image of his film stars, had affairs with women–and his wife had an affair with Superman actor George Reeves.
Joel and Ethan Coen have taken the essence of Mannix and put him in their latest film Hail Caesar, something they’d wanted to do for years. He’s played by Josh Brolin, the third time he’s been in one of their films.
While Mannix was real, just about everything else in Hail, Caesar isn’t. The plot is about a day in Mannix’ life as he acts as a middleman between exasperated directors and idiot actors. There are glimpses at each of the films being made at Capitol Studios, and they’re all send-ups of the kind of movies made in the 1950s, like a musical with sailors, a Busby Berklee musical, a western, a high-class drama (with a cowboy in it) and most prominently, “Hail, Caesar,” a big budget Roman epic like Ben Hur.
Leading in that film is Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who looks like a leading man as always, but his big moments are always ruined by either his own incompetence, by others, or by his being kidnapped.
The movie has some very funny scenes, the best ones being the films-within-the film and a scene with four religious leaders talking about whether “Hail Caesar” is offensive. It also looks very good with what looks like a Technicolor palette.
But its biggest flaw is there’s so much stuff going on and George Clooney’s kidnapping takes up a ton of space. As a result, Scarlett Johansson gets top billing but appears in two scenes. Other recognizable actors like Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Christopher Lambert and Dolph Lundgren only get one scene each. It feels like a lot was filmed but it had to be cut to keep the movie short (it’s only 100 minutes). The Coen Brothers are great at creating interesting characters and while the few moments we get with everyone are interesting, they’re forgotten about and we don’t get to see very much of anybody except Mannix. And the studio executive is not as interesting as the movie stars he is in charge of.
And Mannix’ conflict, if any, is not really spelled out–we get hints he’s conflicted about leaving and joining Lockheed Martin, but it’s not explored very much. In the end he stays at the studio and keeps doing what he did before.
Overall, there’s good stuff in Hail, Caesar (though if you want a full-on parody of a big budget Roman religious movie, there’s always Life of Brian. the Monty Python epic). It might work best to watch the individual clips, but the whole movie could use a director’s cut with the missing footage put back in.