It’s fitting that “Hail, Caesar!” is arriving just in time for Valentine’s Day. This big box of creamy bonbons is a rapturous love letter: a loopy, affectionately jaundiced portrait of Hollywood’s Golden Age at precisely the moment that it was beginning to tarnish.
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, this screwball whodunit (or, perhaps more accurately, whosinit) pays homage not only to the stars who populated showbiz’s most glamorous firmament but also to the Coens’ own canon, from “Barton Fink” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” to “A Serious Man” and even “Fargo.” (Listen for the familiar syncopated timpani in Carter Burwell’s score.)
For Coen fans and movie-trivia mavens, “Hail, Caesar!” is a bracing injection straight into their pleasure centers, brimming with the brothers’ signature brio, offhand erudition and more inside jokes, as the saying once went, than there are stars in heaven. Slick, silly and often extravagantly pretty, it’s a pastiche that threads a tricky needle, conveying the dual nature of cinema as an enchanting art form and a ruthless, rationalized industrial practice.
Those competing impulses are neatly embodied by the film’s beleaguered protagonist, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the harried production chief of Capitol Pictures who, as the movie opens in the 1950s, is embarking on yet another addled day of problem-solving, power playing and ego massaging. (Capitol may be fictional, but Mannix is not: he was a real-life “fixer” at MGM during the studio’s storied heyday.) As Capitol’s most dexterous troubleshooter, Mannix is used to managing several projects at once, dispensing with each crisis — usually having to do with someone drying out or being discovered in an illicit love nest — with hard-boiled, sometimes bare-knuckled professionalism.
“Hail, Caesar!” follows Mannix through a roughly 24-hour period, bracketed by confessions to a Catholic priest, during which he emerges as a morally serious man pursuing a vocation in one of the world’s most morally unserious industries. Mannix can’t imagine leaving the “oddballs and misfits” he spends every waking hour coddling and manipulating. Like the circus worker whose task it is to clean up after the elephants, he has become attached to his job, despite the occasionally overwhelming stench. Ask the janitor and Mannix why they don’t quit, and they’ll give the same shocked reply: “What, and give up show business?”
It may be a cockamamie cavalcade, but “Hail, Caesar!” takes full advantage of the glorious view. The conceit of Mannix’s day-in-the-life allows the Coens to peek in on all manner of movies that hark back to Hollywood’s lacquered, genre-driven past. Visiting the sets of a B-western, a sophisticated parlor drama, an Esther Williams-type swimsuit spectacle and a Gene Kelly musical — not to mention the eponymous film, a hilariously earnest biblical epic called “Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ” — the Coens create a series of movies-within-movies, ingeniously adjusting the production values of each one to evoke a bygone cinematic age. Like many of the films that it’s simultaneously lampooning and celebrating, “Hail, Caesar!” features an all-star cast of attractive, exceptionally game players, including Ralph Fiennes as a pretentious director; Scarlett Johansson as a gorgeously curvy (and getting curvier) swim star; and Channing Tatum, who delivers a fabulous dance sequence in the movie at precisely the place where the fabulous dance sequence should go. The breakout star of “Hail, Caesar!” is Alden Ehrenreich, a fresh-faced young actor who charms his way through the film as a guileless trick rider and roper.
George Clooney has just as much fun with his slightly more grizzled portrayal of the dim-witted Baird Whitlock, Capitol’s biggest star, who goes mysteriously missing and whose plotline offers something of a funhouse version of “Trumbo” and its sometimes sanctimonious treatment of Red Scare-era Hollywood. While “Hail, Caesar!” pokes playful fun at the self-righteous progenitors of what today would be called limousine liberals, it’s difficult to remember a recent movie so tartly on-point in skewering a power-driven industry obsessed with such seemingly meaningless ephemera as screen-credit and commissary pecking orders.
At its most sophisticated, “Hail, Caesar!” also acknowledges the power of cinema as a colonizing medium, able to codify values that, once expressed by screen idols, seep seamlessly into the public consciousness. One of the film’s most amusing sequences pays clever Coen-esque tribute to that idea, when Mannix assembles a group of religious leaders in order to inoculate “Hail, Caesar!” against religious controversy. The ensuing, increasingly tetchy debate manages to entertain competing interpretations of nearly everything under the Southern California sun, from script plausibility to the nature of the godhead.
“Hail, Caesar!” revisits the themes that have preoccupied the Coens throughout their career, from vanished forms of popular culture to heady philosophical inquiries. But rather than a mere retread, this goofy, sometimes corny bagatelle provides an improbably fresh portrayal of Hollywood as hegemonic force: an imperium that projects its power through paper-moon artifice and paste-pot aspirations rather than swords, sandals or “the big H-arino,” as one character calls a recent hydrogen bomb test on Bikini Atoll.
As lush, absurd and damnably seductive as the world it portrays, “Hail, Caesar!” doesn’t seek to praise old Hollywood, exactly. But neither do the Coens want to bury it, at least not entirely. They’re far too forgiving for such cold finality. They’d rather leave viewers — along with their flawed, sympathetic protagonist — imbued with the faith that, even at its most regimented and impersonal, the Dream Factory is still capable of creating wonder, beauty and maybe even a touch of the divine.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some suggestive content and smoking. 106 minutes.