Eddie Mannix (1891-1963) was very real. The last time a Hollywood film tried to tell us about the most famous “fixer” in its history was “Hollywoodland,” an investigation into the suicide of George Reeves who played Superman on 1950’s TV. Among the commonplace speculations from a town where stories and scenarios are a dime a dozen is the conjecture that Mannix might have had Reeves killed for having an affair with his wife and then, in effect, dumping her.
Whatever the truth of that, it was a matter of some renown about Mannix in his lifetime that he was the guy MGM charged with maintaining the studio’s “public image.” When, for instance, Loretta Young became pregnant with what’s generally thought to be Clark Gable’s baby, Mannix was the fixer who arranged for her to have it in secret and then adopt her own baby publicly out of the supposed kindness of her large, movie star’s heart.
That story is now attached in this new Coen Brothers movie to Scarlett Johansson playing an Esther Williams star of aquatic extravaganzas. It’s one of many Mannix tales offered askew along with many others in “Hail, Caesar!”
Josh Brolin is terrific as Mannix. I chortled and laughed through the whole thing. And I smiled for hours afterward thinking about it. Let me also confess that I seemed to be alone in the crowded theater, when this plush and joyfully elaborate inside joke on Hollywood history was being screened.
Baffled silence greeted most of it. Such laughs and chuckles as there were tended to be muted and, when it was over, there were more than a few comments of “what was that?” variety. People had seen the TV ads and expected a farcical all-star romp starring the gaudiest assemblage of star power to kick off 2016.
And what they got, quite frankly, marked an audience that needed to be not only steeped in Hollywood lore and history but was liable to find, say, Hollywood’s biblical spectaculars a bit ridiculous, as the Coens obviously do.
“Hail, Caesar!,” you see, is also the movie within the movie, the sandal and toga biblical spectacular inside “Hail, Caesar!” where with the subtitle that comes after it is “A Tale of The Christ.” If you understand that MGM’s mega-hit “Ben-Hur” was based on a novel by General Lew Wallace called “Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” you’ve got a leg up on what the Coens are getting at.
And then when you see this movie’s Mannix – played tongue just outside of cheek – assemble a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, a rabbi and an Eastern Orthodox prelate in his office to discuss who might be offended by “Hail, Caesar!” you know just how funny the Coens think it was when MGM did that exact kind of thing before “Ben-Hur” was loosed on an adoring public.
What is delightful about much of “Hail, Caesar!” is that the Coens seem to think that among the most ridiculous aggregates of human beings ever assembled are those found in a mighty Hollywood movie studio in its Golden Age.
The fictional studio here is called Capitol Pictures, but MGM is the model, all the way. And there was no greater way to tell the droll but endlessly surreal hilarity of the place than through the life and times of Mannix, a fellow who, in the movie, goes to confession daily, mostly to tell his bored neighborhood priest about all the times he lies to his wife about smoking. (She wants him to quit.)
Movie lore and history come thick and furious in “Hail, Caesar!” in ways both tiny and huge and wildly elaborate. Among the tinier ones is the fictional Latina movie star – a Carmen Miranda type – whom the Coens call Carlotta Valdez, the name of the ancestor in the museum painting that haunts Kim Novak in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”
On the opposite end of the scale, the Coen Brothers created their own versions of spectacular MGM scenes including the crucifixion of Christ in “Ben-Hur,” a huge aquatic extravaganza in Williams’ style, a sailor musical a la “Anchors Aweigh” starring Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelly-ish song-and-dance man, and a backlot Western starring a singing cowboy who does terrific rope tricks and stunts with galloping horses and can be counted on in life to be as close to a real hero as the lot has.
The Coens seem to have gotten everyone they know to take a role in their affectionate satire on Hollywood idiocy.
Their plot is that the star (played by George Clooney) of “Hail, Caesar!,” the movie within the movie, is kidnapped by Communist screenwriters and held for $100,000 ransom. That is another problem for Mannix to handle, along with his pregnant star in mermaid costume and the Manhattan moneybags across the continent who wants his Western star turned into a tuxedoed drawing room society type.
It’s all clearly ridiculous to the Coens who, nevertheless, reveal in this movie that they love every bit of it, right down to Frances McDormand – Mrs. Joel Coen in life – playing a chain-smoking film editor a la Margaret Booth who has comic trouble keeping herself from being strangled by her scarf at her editing bay.
Jokes like that are, at best, likely to be understood by 2 percent of this film’s audience. Even fewer will know that the Coens are referring to a great line in their own masterpiece “Barton Fink” in which Michael Lerner, as a movie mogul, tells his leftist screenwriter to “give us that Barton Fink feeling; we all get that Barton Fink feeling.”
Clooney plays the kidnapped actor with such unusual discipline that the movie’s best scene gives you a wonderful moment of movie pseudo-piety suddenly and comically subject to filmmaking reality.
Would you believe that in their advancing years, the Coens are no longer misanthropes but can come dangerously close to Hollywood lovers and major nostalgists? It won’t help this movie win a huge number of audience partisans but for its limited but true audience, it’s droll fun.
2.5 stars (out of four)
Starring: George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Jonah Hill, Ralph Fiennes
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Running Time: 106 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for smoking and suggestive content.
The Lowdown: Droll comic fantasy about the real life of MGM executive Eddie Mannix, the best-known “fixer” of the movie studio’s Golden Era.