On a long day in 1951, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) – studio head of Capitol Pictures – copes with a range of minor and major crises involving films in production and his variously troubled and troublesome creative staff, all the while mulling over an offer to get into the more sensible, grounded aviation industry by taking a less stressful job at Lockheed. Mannix was a real person, and history tends to remember him less sympathetically than Joel and Ethan Coen do. In Hollywoodland, it’s strongly suggested that Mannix (Bob Hoskins) was instrumental in the murder of George ‘Superman’ Reeves, and many Hollywood histories paint him as a brutal fixer rather than the Monroe Stahr-type ‘whole equation’ big-picture seer Brolin plays very well. Then again, part of the underlying joke of the film is that you don’t go to a Hollywood studio for accuracy, either in a film about the crucifixion or a press release about the love life of its contract stars.
Embedded in the overall story are sequences from Capitol’s films which allow the Coens to essay various they-don’t-make-’em-like-that types of vintage movie … Biblical/Roman epic Hail Caesar!: A Story of the Christ, in the tradition of The Robe and Ben-Hur; an Esther Williams-type aqua-musical with Scarlett Johansson (splendidly vulgar) in a mermaid’s tail (‘fish-ass’); Merrily We Dance, a sophisticated high society comedy romance; singing cowboy movie ‘Lazy Ol’ Moon’ (which, weirdly, poaches its main gag from conflating whiskery western sidekick Gabby Hayes with Charles Laughton in Hobson’s Choice); and a sailors-on-leave musical whose big song is called ‘No Dames’. The Coens often do production number-type set-pieces (think of the ‘Danny Boy’ shoot-out in Miller’s Crossing, the hula hoop montage in The Hudsucker Proxy or the novelty song in Inside Llewyn Davis) and here play with pastiche that shades into satire. Channing Tatum does a Gene Kelly sailor-on-the-table dance with charm and flair, for instance, but also stars in a ludicrous defection-to-a-Soviet-sub sequence that’s not supposed to be part of a Capitol movie. The off-screen story – which involves blacklisted communist writers kidnapping star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), in Roman centurion costume, to extort money from the studio – is as ludicrous as anything in any of the fictional movies, and even sends up the Coens’ repeated use of kidnapping as a plot motor. It was once said that once you scraped the artificial tinsel off the movie business you found the real tinsel underneath – and this is a celebration of that real tinsel.
In Barton Fink, a more nightmarish vision, the Coens had Fink working on a wrestling movie for Wallace Beery – one of the subtlest jokes of that film was that there were one or two classic Hollywood wrestling films, but it wasn’t a real genre. Here, they home in on a whole lot of film forms that were actually fairly niche – there are only three major sailors-on-leave musicals, really – and treat them as if they were mainstays. Also in the category of not-done-often formats is the life-in-a-day movie (cf: On the Town, After Hours) and this is one of those too … with Mannix careering from office to bar to cutting room to set to church as he puts out fires and works on his pained expression and aching conscience (he begins and ends the long day with confession). Not all the schtick works, but most of it is sweet and funny and the Coens trust us to be won over by recreations of the look of Technicolor Bible movies or Powell-Pressburger showbiz dramas. A few gags involve mapping a contemporary sensibility onto the past, as when a literally unspeakable line (‘would that it were true’) is revised to a pithier ‘it’s complicated’.
The shade of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon is raised by some of the gossip, but it’s surprisingly indulgent about characters who’d be easier comedy sells if they were phony … when singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) goes on a studio-arranged date with Carmen Miranda/Mexican Spitfire type Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio), it’s sweet and unexpected that they actually like each other and get on well … and Doyle’s struggle to work in a drawing room dialogue setting (referencing Tim Holt in The Maqgnificent Ambersons?) with Cukor-like director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) is funny because they really do try to make it work rather than just do Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain jokes. Also with Tilda Swinton as twin gossip columnists, Jonah Hill as a professional fall guy and Frances McDormand as an ace editor who learns not to wear long scarves. A weird footnote is that this isn’t where you’d expect a Highlander reunion, but Christopher Lambert is funny as an accented director and Clancy Brown does a perfect Charles McGraw-in-Spartacus croak as a supporting Roman legionary.