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All 'Hail' 

The Coen Brothers return to frantic comedy in "Hail, Caesar!"

click to enlarge 'HAIL, CAESAR!': George Clooney stars.
  • 'HAIL, CAESAR!': George Clooney stars.

When I first saw "No Country for Old Men," at some North Georgia multiplex in the middle of the night, I was much younger and a little less obsessed with greed and destruction than I am now. I had no debt and fewer stitches, but I was still an idiot. I blinked in the darkness, breathing loudly during long periods of silence, as cowboys and lawmen fled or were pursued and slaughtered for whatever reasons. There was no music.

I hardly felt like standing up by the end, and as the credits appeared onscreen, an old woman in front of me slapped her thighs and asked no one, "What was the point?" I didn't know. Except, apparently, that our reward would be the grave. I blame the Coen brothers for making me talk this way, and I blame Cormac McCarthy a little. That movie is a brutal tragedy, and it's full of the language of existential despair. I never read the book.

On the other hand, "The Big Lebowski" is full of nihilists, pornographers, the perversions of the elite and John Goodman's long, beautiful strands of profanity. Like most of the Coen's movies, the whole thing is about a mix-up. I always laugh when Donny dies, because it's everyone's fault. Millions of people saw "O, Brother, Where Art Thou?" (and bought the soundtrack) and were singing about sorrow after everything is destroyed in a flood. And they were smiling! Those two are comedies!

"Hail, Caesar!" asks the same questions about futility and defeat and purpose as the others, and that's a comfort in some ways, because it is also funny. There is a suitcase full of money and a cowboy and a benign narrator, adding perspective and transitions between acts. Although they ask a lot of questions, the Coen brothers have few answers for us, as ever.

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a "fixer" who buries crises caused by various Hollywood types and actors for Capitol Pictures. He is religious and punctual, goes to confession, wears a smart-looking watch and a small mustache. He is trying to quit smoking. A man from Lockheed Corp. in a Chinese restaurant offers him a job, offers him cigarettes. His current job is a disaster. He manages the egos of the studio's talent, covers up their affairs and benders and pregnancy scandals, and pays a ransom when one of them, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is abducted. I don't think Mannix sleeps in the movie at all.

Baird is the star of the other "Hail, Caesar!" — the movie within the movie, the classic tale of the Christ — and plays a Roman converted by the power of the cross or the blood or the garment. Baird's character freezes and becomes doe-eyed when he sees Jesus watering some slaves. You never see his face, but you see the light of his face reflect off of Clooney's heavy makeup. He is handsome, but for a second I imagined Will Ferrell playing Peter O'Toole. Jesus is tall with red hair.

Some Communist writers who call themselves "The Future" feel cheated out of payment for scripts they've written, abduct Whitlock, discuss the politics and psychology of the era, give him finger sandwiches, deliver decent one-liners, and introduce some of the heavier concepts in the movie. With their wide Communist mustaches they chain-smoke and discuss "the dialectic."

I almost felt overwhelmed watching Mannix's daily responsibilities compound, but I got used to the pace once I realized the stakes. The plot is secondary to the feel of "Hail, Caesar!" It all takes place over one day in 1952 or so. The people are at work and humanity is a farce. The relatively new threats of television and communism will disrupt the accepted order, but not yet. So Mannix goes about his business: helping DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) adopt her own child, watching Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) do a six-minute tap routine, answering his phone the second it rings, checking his watch and going back to confession.

But mostly it's light enough to let go. Maybe two or three people in the whole movie learn something. As busy as Mannix is, he still takes time to watch the dailies or wait in the shadows of a soundstage, watching a take. He would like to be master of his absurd world, because life may be meaningless, but it keeps on going, and a lot of it is an illusion.

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