While Hail, Caesar! may fall just short of being a masterpiece on par with the Coen brothers’ last picture, Inside Llewyn Davis, like that film, it’s a period piece that features a circular sense of structure, ending essentially how it begins. And it’s not for nothing that this 17th feature from writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen opens on a shot of a crucifix, before moving into a confessional where they introduce us to Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, continuing a string of great performances), who’s chided by a priest for confessing his mundane sins so frequently.

The Coens lend Brolin the name and profession (if not the temperament) of an MGM general manager and vice president who gained a frightening reputation as a “fixer” for the famed studio, covering up scandals during a career that spanned more than two decades. However, this fictionalized version of Mannix doesn’t share his inspiration’s purported Mafia ties. Rather, he’s a Christ figure who bears the burdens of other people’s sins. In other ­words, Mannix is a good man. Driven by a comical sense of Catholic guilt, he’s the rare, sensitive sort who sheds tears when he’s let people down. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” Mannix says, glancing at his wristwatch for the first of many times as he adds, “It’s been 24 hours since my last confession. I lied to my wife. I started smoking again.” And indeed, the next time we see him, Mannix bums a smoke off of a cop he’s just paid to protect the image of one of his studio’s female contract players (Natasha Bassett), who was about to get busted in a compromising shoot with a sleazy photographer.

In between bookend confessions, Mannix spends the next 24 hours handling the unplanned pregnancy of unwed aquatic star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson, a hoot as she channels Esther Williams), easing the studio-mandated transition of cowboy crooner Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich, nearly stealing the picture from his more seasoned co-stars) out of chaps and into tuxedos, and dealing with the not-entirely-unusual disappearance of bender-prone womanizer Baird Whitlock (a marvelous George Clooney), Capitol Pictures’ biggest star.

That’s right, Capitol Pictures—the same fictional studio that the Coens used as the backdrop of 1991’s Barton Fink, their 1941-set comedy. That picture centered on a celebrated Broadway writer who is chewed up by the Hollywood system, but this much lighter movie is set at least a decade later, so these mistreated screenwriters are also—gasp!—communists. And they’ve kidnapped Whitlock from the set of Capitol’s biblical epic, Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ. This commie cult of writers (Max Baker, Fisher Stevens, Patrick Fischler, Tom Musgrave, David Krumholtz, Greg Baldwin, Patrick Carroll and Clancy Brown) demands a $100,000 ransom for the safe return of the dopey Whitlock, who’s being treated to martinis in the comfort of his prison, a beachside estate in Malibu.

While production is temporarily shut down, the Coens have the luxury of indulging in playful re-creations of other genre hallmarks of the era, aided greatly by a few of their frequent ace collaborators, like cinematographer Roger Deakins, production designer Jess Gonchor and composer Carter Burwell. For example, as Mannix expertly keeps two gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton, playing twin sisters) from the truth about Whitlock’s absence, he delivers ransom money to the set of a musical starring Channing Tatum singing and dancing his way through a Gene Kelly-inspired performance. The cheeky production number, a homoerotic sequence featuring randy sailors who perform a risque song called “No Dames,” is a standout.

Another highlight is Ralph Fiennes, who plays Laurence Laurentz, a dandy director of upscale chamber dramas who demonstrates the patience of a saint as he attempts to get unwanted cowpoke and new lead actor Doyle to drop the drawl and deliver the line “Would that it ’twere so simple.” Thankfully for us, it’s not—and the interplay between Fiennes and Ehrenreich elevates the Coens’ typically amusing tone into a higher key. Another notable comic turn: Joel Coen’s wife, Frances McDormand (an Oscar winner for her lead role in the Coens’ 1996 gem, Fargo), who cameos as a chain-smoking editor. But then, the entire star-studded cast is superb, especially Brolin, whose top-notch performance brings a lived-in feel to his selfless suit.

Hail, Caesar!  ***1/2

Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Veronica Osorio, Heather Goldenhersh, Alison Pill, Max Baker, Fisher Stevens, Patrick Fischler, Tom Musgrave, David Krumholtz, Greg Baldwin, Patrick Carroll, Fred Melamed, John Bluthal, Alex Karpovsky, Aramazd Stepanian, Allan Havey, Robert Pike Daniel, Robert Picardo, Ian Blackman, Geoffrey Cantor, Christopher Lambert, Robert Trebor, Wayne Knight, Jeff Lewis, Kyle Bornheimer, Peter Jason, Natasha Bassett, Richard Abraham, Jon Daly, Dennis Cockrum, Clancy Brown and Frances McDormand. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Fenway, Somerville and in the suburbs.

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