The film covers a bit more than twenty-four hours in the hectic life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), Head of Physical Production for the fictional Capitol Studios. Mannix is second-in-command to the studio’s never-seen owner, which means his day consists of dealing with manifold crises brought about by artists, their egos, and their bad habits. (Mannix is loosely based on the real-live studio executive Edgar “E.J.” Mannix, who was at one time General Manager for MGM.)
Chief crisis of the day is when star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) disappears from the lot during filming of a Biblical epic, curiously titled “Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ.”
Whitlock plays a Roman tribune who undergoes a conversion when meeting Jesus, basically the plot of the 1953 movie, “The Robe,” somewhat simplified. The studio is in the last day of shooting the cast-of-thousands spectacular when Whitlock goes missing, a fact which makes Mannix willing to pay off Whitlock’s unlikely kidnappers. Meanwhile, he has to think fast in order to keep competing twin-sister columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) from figuring out that his star has gone missing.
He also has to deal with a pregnant but unmarried actress (in a day when that was significant) , another scandal lurking in Whitlock’s past, and his boss’ insistence in plugging a singing cowboy into a lead role in a drawing-room drama.
The plot and subplots are ultimately shruggable. The real pleasure of the film is the loving homages to bygone genres of the 1950’s. The title sword-and-sandal epic is the least successful, being mainly boring and not improved by Michael Gambon’s intentionally pompous voiceover. The over the top action sequence that introduces cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is quite amazing, and the water ballet sequence featuring Scarlett Johanssen as an Esther Williams figure, synchronized swimmers, and a mechanical whale, is ridiculous fun. Georgie, expecting never to see a new dance number anything like those in the classic “On The Town,” was delighted by the extended sequence featuring Channing Tatum in the Gene Kelly slot, and declared it worth the price of admission. Tatum, who learned tap dancing for the part, isn’t a patch on Gene Kelly of course, but nevertheless exhibited impressive athleticism and style, and the choreography was a very effective pastiche of the glory days of dance films.
Another part of the fun is matching up the references and homages. Clooney’s character has been referred to as partly based on Clark Gable, but Gable never did that sort of movie, so he’s more like Charlton Heston with Gable’s off-screen character. Veronica Osorio has a sweet role as Capitol’s version of Carmen Miranda, and there are many other allusions in the backgrounds. If I were more of a serious film student, I might be able to tell you who the directors, arty Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Feinnes) and foreign-sounding Arne Seslum (Christopher Lambert) might have referred to. (The director of “On the Town,” Stanley Donen, was American, and Michael Curtiz, notorious for his Hungarian accent, never directed musical films--.)
The stellar cast was also a major reason we went, and we were not disappointed. The huge cast means that no one except Brolin (who was very good), gets a lot of screen time, but it’s clear everyone was having fun and getting their teeth into the roles. We will likely see this a second time, probably on DVD, so that we can catch all the trivia.
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