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All Hail 'Caesar!'

Clooney and the Coens explore the stories we tell ourselves

(Video) 'Hail Caesar' Movie Trailer: A Hollywood fixer in the 1950s works to keep the studio's stars in line.

Rating: PG-13

Run time: 1 hour 46 minutes

Stars: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton

Directors: Ethan and Joel Coen

A brilliant ensemble comedy that revisits the Coen Brothers' soft spot for Old Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! draws us in with a shaggy-dog story about a kidnapped movie star. Then, before we know it, the film morphs into a complex fable that ingeniously palpates the thin membranes dividing the tales we've been telling ourselves for thousands of years, from the Bible to blockbuster movies.

It's sometime in the 1950s, and Hollywood lives in fear of that increasingly pervasive upstart, television. One of the biggest studios, Capital Pictures, plans to fight back with Hail, Caesar!, a sprawling epic that closely resembles the 1959 Charlton Heston potboiler, Ben-Hur.

Instead of Chuck in the role of the conflicted Roman officer, we get George Clooney as matinee idol Baird Whitlock, strutting about in metal jacket and cingulum, carrying the multimillion-dollar project on his broad shoulders.

Then, during a break in the filming, Baird gets kidnapped (Seinfeld alum Wayne Knight has a fun cameo as a member of the gang) and spirited off to a Malibu beach house occupied by a shadowy group calling itself "The Future." A more convivial band of abductors you couldn't find: They sit around sipping tea, snacking on cucumber sandwiches and discussing economics. To reveal more about the kidnappers, their real-world occupations or their true motivation would ruin one of the film's many delightful small surprises. But I can say that they make congenial hosts to their victim and that they are played by a delightfully eclectic mix of veteran character actors.

Through the early going, Clooney is asked to do little more than act like a big movie star. And that, as we all know, Clooney does better than anybody.

Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix in “Hail, Caesar!"

Courtesy of Alison Rosa/Universal Pictures

Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix in “Hail, Caesar!"

For Capital Pictures exec Eddie Mannix (played with no-nonsense efficiency by Josh Brolin), Baird's disappearance is just the largest of several headaches. He's also trying to rebrand his top cowboy-picture star, Hobie Doyle (sweetly played by handsome young Alden Ehrenreich), as a sophisticated Cary Grant type. Additionally, Mannix is being hounded for the latest dirt on his biggest stars by twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton, portraying both sisters as perpetually exasperated). And he's being courted by the Lockheed aircraft company to work there.

But wait, the brothers Coen are just getting started: Mannix chafes at the amount of time he must spend apart from his wife and children, and he feels so guilty about hiding his smoking habit that he goes to confession daily.

This warm-hearted portrait of the character is a far cry from the real Eddie Mannix, a notorious MGM fixer who reportedly covered up everything from infidelity to manslaughter to protect his biggest stars. (For a more menacing screen version of Mannix — the one implicated in the "suicide" of George "Superman" Reeves — watch Bob Hoskins channel the man in the excellent 2006 drama Hollywoodland.)

Historical purists, quibble if you like, but the Coens aren't interested in accurately re-creating the Hollywood of the 1950s. For all the fun of the kidnapping story line, Hail, Caesar! is mostly about the human impulse to tell and sustain stories. As he finalizes his biblical epic, Mannix calls in a panel of clerics to critique the script. (A rabbi, a priest and a minister walk into a movie studio; I'll leave the punch line to you.) In one of the film's comic highlights, the clergymen stymie Mannix with their wildly divergent takes on what the Bible really means.

The kidnappers, meanwhile, eager to share their rationale with the captive Baird, recast the entire flow of history to fit their grand views of world politics. On the studio soundstages, we learn that the difference between a singing cowboy and a suave man-about-town is merely a matter of the story in which he's cast — and there's nothing about an unexpectedly pregnant Esther Williams-like swimming star (a hilarious Scarlett Johansson) that a fake-adoption story can't resolve. Even the gossip twins are in perpetual search of a story — any story — whether it can be proven true or not.

As for their audience, the Coens set us up for a head-spinning twist on one of 20th-century Hollywood's most commonly accepted narratives. It has to do with the people who kidnap Baird, and it's played with such broad comedy there's no way to take it seriously. Yet we can't help asking ourselves, "Wait — what if it were true? What would the end of that story have been?"

Likewise, in the movie's climactic scene, Baird returns to film the grand finale of his biblical saga, a scene in which he rhapsodizes about the mysterious relationship between God and man. Like the crew and studio functionaries standing just beyond camera range, we are mesmerized by Clooney's thundering, tearful delivery. Then the cameras stop rolling, the storytelling ceases and the air rushes out of the room. Without stories — true or false, amicable or malign — life would be an empty endeavor indeed.

Hail, Caesar! is in many ways an old-fashioned film. The story advances in fits and starts, occasionally juddering to a halt for comic bits or musical numbers. (A sailors-on-leave song-and-dance featuring Channing Tatum could be an outtake from On the Town.)

Stylistically, the Coens are asking us to curb our modern urge for movie scenes that fly by at the speed of a Tweety bird. Instead they invite us to settle in for a quixotic visit with some quirky people, each with their own intriguing story to tell.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.