Hollywood, 1951. Eddie Mannix, Capitol Pictures production exec and top studio fixer, is having another brutal day. Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the guy who gets the call whenever there's a PR crisis to finesse or a messy scandal to be sponged up. Right now he's dealing with a wayward starlet who needs to be whacked back into line, and a hayseed cowboy actor (Alden Ehrenreich) who's been disastrously miscast in a sleek high-society drama. Then there's DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), star of the studio's popular aquatic musicals, who while not married at the moment is nevertheless pregnant. And twin-sister gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton and Tilda Swinton) are sniffing around, too. What next?
That question is quickly answered when Mannix receives a ransom demand for the return of dimwitted dreamboat Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), currently in the final stages of shooting a Biblical epic called Hail, Caesar! Whitlock has been abducted by a group called The Future—what's that all about?—and if he can't be retrieved for his big climactic scene with Jesus, the movie will collapse. Christ.
Writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen last visited Capitol Pictures in their 1991 Barton Fink. Now the time is 10 years later, and we find Hollywood roiled by a nationwide Red Scare and the encroachment of television, along with all the usual ego-fueled idiocy attendant upon the making of motion pictures. It's a rich period, and the Coens' satirical approach to it is appreciatively affectionate. The movie is filled with vintage gossip references (one character has had the pleasure of shaving Danny Kaye's back) and semi-real-life characters (the actual Eddie Mannix was a legendary MGM fixer). And the picture's obsessive detail—a credit to the Coens' longtime production designer Jess Gonchor and costume designer Mary Zophres—and luscious cinematography (Roger Deakins once again) are gorgeous throughout.
But the movie is very loosely structured, and its narrative through-line—Mannix's one-after-another responses to the various calamities, and his temptation by a job offer from the Lockheed Corporation—isn't all that interesting. Despite Brolin's energetic efforts, his character—a devoutly Catholic family man—is a bland figure in the middle of much livelier story elements.
But there are several knockout scenes, most of them period genre recreations. Johansson, playing a character modeled on swimsuit icon Esther Williams, is terrific in a production number that has her splashing around in a mermaid tail among a squad of synchronized aqua-goddesses and then rocketing up toward the overhead camera on a towering gush of water. And Channing Tatum, as Capitol dance star Burt Gurney, brings off a spectacular salute to Gene Kelly in a barroom song-and-tap scene with a crew of high-kicking sailors. Ehrenreich's Hobie Doyle, the miscast cowboy, gets to display some really impressive lariat expertise, and has a wonderful dim-bulb dialogue-fluffing scene with Ralph Fiennes, playing his quietly exasperated director. Tilda Swinton, in a series of elaborately feathered hats, makes a great pair of gossip sharks; and even Jonah Hill, popping up for about a minute as a studio sub-fixer, gets to contribute a wacky solution to the DeeAnna pregnancy problem (the same one employed for Loretta Young after she was inconveniently impregnated by Clark Gable).
The Coens' drollest conception is the group of kidnappers called The Future, who are holding Whitlock in a swank Malibu beach house. These characters turn out to be a cadre of Marxist screenwriters who revile the capitalist studio system (there's even a Professor Marcuse among their number!) and have been angrily packing their scripts with commie propaganda. Unfortunately, their philosophical interactions with the moronic Whitlock aren't as funny you'd hope, much in the way that Mannix's confessional exchanges with a priest don't really pay off, either. Although, as you'd expect, there are glimmers of amusement there, too. After having slapped one of his many witless actors, Mannix confesses, "I struck a movie star in anger." "Five Hail Marys," the priest says.