Not a normal comedy, not at least how many in North America would define comedy. It's a spoof, a lampoon of Hollywood's Golden Age. This was the era in which the large studios controlled everything. They had the producers, directors and actors all under contract, and they also owned nearly all the theaters in large chains. This iron grip on the industry started to be broken in 1948 with the landmark SCOTUS anti-trust decision that forced the studios to divest themselves of their theater chain ownerships. This, coupled with the rise of TV from then into the early 1950's, caused a significant slump in theater ticket sales that lasted until Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" in 1972 and Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" in 1974. The rise of free agent actors not under iron-clad studio contract, with independent directors and producers did not rise until the latter 1950's.
Hollywood responded during the mid-1950's while they still had contractual control over producers, directors and actors, by creating epic spectacles and innovating with wide-screen formats that could not be done on TV. That's the environment in which we enter the Coen Bro's film, "Hail, Caeser!", this interim period in which Hollywood was trying to find itself after losing the theater chains and competing with television. Like Francois Truffaut's 1973 "Day for Night" which portrays the trials and tribulations of a director attempting to create a movie, the Coen Bro's move up the food chain in the remnants of the studio system to the head of film production for a fictitious major Hollywood studio, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). He's a "fix-it" man that keeps production going by removing the barriers and obstacles impeding the producers and directors working for him. This includes finding ways to sooth the ruffled feathers of prima dona actors, keep scandals out of the tabloids and gossip columns, solve personality conflicts, and find solutions to casting problems. The Coen Bro's do a superb job with production values and costuming to provide the early 1950's setting in great detail, including some pull-back screen shots of the countless large sound stages and back lots with enormous structures that populated the acreage occupied by the major studios. Even the color saturation goes for the kind of look Technicolor created in that era.
The result is film that pans and skewers what Hollywood was during the 1950's, and their epic productions. The film's title comes from the fictitious studio's major production nearing the end of filming, the fictitious "Hail, Caesar!" Those familiar with Biblical Roman Empire epics from that era will see it as a blend of Ben-Hur, The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, and King of Kings. Likewise there is a synchronized swimming movie in production, an obvious nod to the late 1940's and early 1950's "aquamusicals" with Olympic synchronized swimming star Esther Williams. Lest the classic dance musicals get left out, there's one of those with ballroom dancing and another musical patterned after the film adaptations of the large production Broadway stage musicals. The film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific from the late 1950's comes to mind immediately. Lest it be left out, there are clear nods in a couple directions to the Senator Joe McCarthy Hollywood Commie Witch-Hunt and Blacklisting that centered on many writers (it also ensnared producers and actors). The icing on the cake is getting to see how the screen personas carefully groomed by the studios for public consumption do not necessarily match real life actor personalities (more on this would create spoilers). This is counterbalanced by the twin gossip columnists who are unquestionably patterned after Hedda Hopper and pig sty of actor and studio scandals she could revel in with her syndicated newspaper column.
The fictitious movie productions depicted were the large scale film spectacles with production values/designs and shooting schedules TV could not hope to compete with or produce. Hollywood was desperately looking for cinema that could differentiate itself on the big screen from the living room small screen in a manner that would draw people back into the movie theaters. The risk, though, was one major epic film flop could ruin a film studio financially. It was a pressure cooker environment, and that's the world in which Eddie Mannix worked.
Don't expect situations or jokes that will elicit knee-slapping guffaws. The humor is very wry and very dry. It's in all the convoluted contortions Eddie Mannix must go through to keep the studio's film productions from derailing and coming to a grinding halt and bleeding at a rate of untold dollars per day. Having seen Francois Truffaut's 1973 film, "Day for Night" a number years ago, I immediately "got it" with where the Coen Bro's were going with this movie. The real humor is a behind the scenes look on the last years of the Hollywood Golden Age studio system with all its warts and feet of clay the studios tried very hard to conceal from the general public using smoke and mirrors with sleight of hand, a romantic image that nostalgically persists to this day.
Not the best of the Coen Bro's work, but not the worst either, which sill makes it an excellent film. Four solid stars for a job extremely well done.