The last time Joel and Ethan Coen dropped by Hollywood, they nearly burned the place down.
In their gleefully bilious 1991 comedy, “Barton Fink,” John Turturro plays the title sap, a New York playwright who goes west to work for Capitol Pictures, where his Louis B. Mayer-like boss insists straight-faced that “the writer is king!” It’s a cruel joke, one that the Coens play out as Barton is engulfed in flames and madness. As apocalyptic as a Nathanael West hallucination, “Barton Fink” felt like the testament of two filmmakers who, however much they loved movies, were happy to torch the industry. Yet here they are in “Hail, Caesar!,” back on the lot and cracking jokes.
If this were anyone other than the Coens you might think that success and a couple of Oscars had mellowed them. Not likely. “Hail, Caesar!” is one of those diversions that they turn out in between masterworks and duds. It’s a typically sly, off-center comedy, once again set against the machinery of the motion-picture business. And, as usual with the Coens, it has more going on than there might seem, including in its wrangling over God and ideology, art and entertainment. Some of it is familiar and satisfyingly funny, even if there are laughs and bits that seem as if they were written to amuse only the Coens and the Turner Classic Movies crowd. (Love the Loretta Young nod!)
As the Coens have done in the past, they use an unseen narrator (Michael Gambon), who gives the movie a slight fairy-tale vibe, announcing that we’re not in Kansas or anywhere like life. Instead it’s once upon a time in Tinseltown in the 1950s, the decade after Barton Fink’s meltdown. The studio is again Capitol, but here the focus is a suit, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a front-office true believer and a devout Roman Catholic. As tightly wound as the watch he regularly checks, Mannix makes problems disappear before they become headaches or scandal-sheet headlines. He’s a pit bull in a fedora, but his loyalty to the studio suggests that he’s either an idealist or a fanatic. So what is he?
He’s playing a role, for starters, much like the stable of stars and extras under his wing. Like some other Coen creations, he shares a name with a real person, Eddie Mannix, a behind-the-scenes fixer who worked for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer when it claimed to have more stars than there are in heaven. From the mid-1920s on, Mannix prowled that studio, serving as Louis B. Mayer’s trusted aide and the studio’s go-between with the unions; he even greenlighted films. He pops up dealing and scheming in some of the sleazier, less reliable Hollywood histories, but in “Hail, Caesar!” he’s a straight arrow and effectively an executive suite of one — the only big shot on the lot.
The Coens like to open their movies with a question mark — the spurious truth claims in “Fargo,” the tumbling tumbleweeds in “The Big Lebowski,” the Old World shtetl in “A Serious Man” — which suits their playfully layered, sideways storytelling. (They’re masters of the narrative tease.) Both blunt and opaque, the first image in “Hail, Caesar!” is of a large crucifix in a church where Mannix, clutching a rosary, is bowed in prayer and soon making the first of his confession-box appearances. Grimacing, he comes across as a man with far more on his mind than spiritual matters; Mr. Brolin’s large, magnificently sculptural head has rarely looked heavier.
In their circuitous way, the Coens get around to sketching in a story with the kidnapping of a major Capitol star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who’s nearing the end of production on one of its big prestige pictures. Also titled “Hail, Caesar!,” it looks and sounds like one of those dopily sincere religious spectacles that the studios never tire of. (In a Coen-esque flourish, it appears at least partly modeled on the 1959 epic “Ben-Hur,” in which a lock-jawed Charlton Heston, a few years after parting the Red Sea, plays a Jewish prince turned Roman slave turned charioteer who has a life-changing encounter with Jesus.) Whitlock’s kidnapping stirs up turmoil and mystery — the snatchers portentously call themselves “the Future” — which leads to Mannix playing shamus as he tries to get back his star.
At first, the kidnapping seems like an excuse for the Coens to fool around with genre and, as they like to do, riff on classical Hollywood form and style. Usefully, the kidnapping gets Mannix out of his office and onto the set, including a soundstage where a song-and-dance man in a sailor suit, Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), makes like a randy Gene Kelly. Mr. Tatum’s number is delightful, at once satirical and virtuosic, although the winking bawdiness of the choreography is more risqué than what would have been allowed in a real 1950s musical. Here, as elsewhere, the Coens are scratching off the glossy studio veneer to show what lies beneath, including unspoken desires, even as they’re also putting on the kind of good show that helped build MGM.
In its shape, “Hail, Caesar!” at times brings to mind one of those old plot-free film revues that featured a grab bag of studio talent performing in strung-together musical, comic and dramatic scenes. Among the other marquee names Mannix handles are DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), an aquatic star who enters with a snarl and an Esther Williams splash, and a singing cowboy, Hobie Doyle (a charming Alden Ehrenreich), who goes from trick riding to wearing a tuxedo amid a froth of satiny gowns and Mid-Atlantic accents. It’s a rough transition, especially for Hobie’s director, Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes, perfection), who tries to squeeze the drawl out of the cowboy in an elocution lesson that makes for a very funny duet and illustrates Hollywood magic at its dissembling best.
The clock may be ticking for Whitlock, but the Coens are not in any great rush to see him rescued. They’re more interested in meandering in and around their dream factory, in showing DeeAnna wiggling underwater in a mermaid costume and Hobie doing a headstand in a saddle. Like all the performers at Capitol, these two prove supremely good at their jobs, which feels almost sentimental for the Coens but is also an acknowledgment of the old film factory’s brilliance. Even Whitlock, a high-wattage dim bulb, delivers the goods, as does Mr. Clooney, who paints the purloined actor in 50 shades of smiling idiocy. Whitlock is a boob; he’s also a great Hollywood star.
No one, though, is more competent than Mannix, who in his looks, loyalty and especially his piety is finally the biggest fantasy figure on screen: the studio executive as a man of virtue. For all his church prayers, Mannix’s faith is invested in Capitol. He’s an embodiment of the industry’s self-delusion and self-mythology, the kind of executive who invokes vision and bullies the help. In this, he makes a sly contrast with some Communist screenwriters who are true believers of a different stripe. Their discussions about art and dialectics mirror a side-splitter of a scene in which Mannix consults with four religious leaders about the studio’s depiction of Jesus. As it turns out, everyone has something to peddle — a talent, an angle, a god — and, truly, that’s entertainment.
“Hail, Caesar!” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). The usual Hollywood high jinks, dames and drama. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes