Coen brothers create an ode to cinema

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

The Coen brothers (“No Country for Old Men,” “The Big Lebowski”) thrive on their outstanding originality, and their latest romp into the absurd proves no different. “Hail, Caesar!” simultaneously dramatizes and mocks the jumbled filmmaking scene of the ‘50s by following Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, “No Country for Old Men”) and a short sampling of his hectic life as a “fixer” for a Hollywood studio.

Altogether, the story is kafkaesque — a convoluted mashup of subplots, all hilariously witty both in nature and substance. Some of these minor stories include a divorced and very vulgar Scarlett Johansson (“Lost in Translation”) in a mermaid suit scrambling to adopt her own child, twin Tilda Swinton (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”) fighting over a scoop, Alden Ehrenreich (“Beautiful Creatures”) fumbling to adapt from a spaghetti western star to a melodramatic thespian and, the largest meandering of the film, the mysterious and comical kidnapping of star actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, “Ocean’s Eleven”), stalling the production of the massive fabricated epic glorifying the life of the Christ, which shares its title with the real film.

This idea of a film within a film appears in other works by the Coen brothers with their picture “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000), a film which borrows its name from another fictional film in Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941).

What may sound like an esoteric amalgamation of references comprehensible only to industry partners and pretentious and unsociable film buffs who just watch movies all day actually proves accessible and easy to watch. The Coen brothers translate the ridiculous themes of vintage Hollywood filmmaking into a universally understood dialect. Josh Brolin’s strong performance as protagonist Eddie Mannix (who was actually a real figure) serves as the rope that fastens these subplots together as he scrambles to fix the studio’s problems.

This may require some background. Unlike the modern film scene, the cinematic creation process formerly revolved entirely around the studios. They hired everybody, and just grouped actors and directors together for different films. Mannix had the unique duty of putting the studio’s assets in line and controlling public relations for wily, typically alcoholic screen stars.

The only example of character development in the film, he is depicted by the Coens as complicated and inward but very efficient and caring about his work, sometimes violating his promises as a religious and family man, but he continues, much like the industry as a whole: actors, directors, producers, all are incessantly overwhelmed and pressured to the point of collapse, but they persist because films are what they love.

“Hail, Caesar!” is no opus magnum, but it is a mosaic of Hollywood history, pure joy, witty writing and brilliant acting. Accompanied by a superb cast, Joel and Ethan Coen take moviegoers behind the scenes to show the absurdities of the industry — the very reasons eager viewers keep coming back to the cinema.

This droll ars poetica is presented as a theatrical delight and is highly recommended in a traditional viewing setting with guaranteed smiles, laughs and a rekindling of a nostalgic love for the screen.

Our Take: 4/5