With four out of their last five films (Burn After Reading being the oddball exception), writers/directors/producers/editors Joel and Ethan Coen have been on a pretty magnificent streak of darker work -- No Country for Old Men, True Grit, A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis -- that has effectively married their quirky aesthetic to powerful, more resonant themes. The results have been some of the finest and most affecting films of their career(s). So perhaps Hail, Caesar! is a bit of a palate cleanser and spirit lifter for the brothers after all that heaviness, because the movie -- which they’ve apparently wanted to make for more than a decade -- is parked firmly in goofier Coens territory, somewhere next to The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Are Thou?.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare Hail, Caesar! to masterpieces like A Serious Man and No Country, but the film ultimately comes across as light and almost insubstantial with a barely-there narrative providing the framework for a series of set-pieces that are the Coens’ slightly smirking tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood. A terrific Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, the studio “fixer” who is almost a walking oxymoron. He remains morally upright and virtuous (the film opens and closes with him going to confession but having little to actually confess) while spending his day putting out fires and solving problems.
His biggest headache at the moment is that Baird Whitlock (George Clooney in full clown mode), star of the titular Biblical Epic Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ, has been kidnapped in the middle of filming with his captors demanding $100,000.
Turns out that Whitlock has been seized by a clutch of frustrated Communist screenwriters, and while they attempt to recruit the befuddled Baird to their cause, Mannix remains constantly in motion, dealing with his Esther Williams-like starlet (Scarlett Johansson) and her soon-to-be-scandalous out-of-wedlock pregnancy, young cowpoke Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) trying to fit into a drawing room drama directed by old-schooler Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) ambushing him at every corner, and the money men back in New York who Mannix wants to keep happy. And did I tell you he also has a job offer on the table from Lockheed that will give him more money, regular hours and time at home with his family?
On paper this sounds like fun and intermittently it is. Most of the top shelf cast only have a scene or two and while some make the most of their screen time, others are trapped in more aimless situations. Johansson’s swim sequence is a loving and beautiful homage to the likes of Bathing Beauty, but her plotline is tepidly handled. Ehrenreich and Fiennes fare better in a hilarious scene on the set as the latter tries to rein in the former’s drawl and make him elocute his lines with increasing exasperation.
But the most dazzling sequence is a Gene Kelly-inspired dance number starring Channing Tatum and a bunch of sailors that captures the thrill of those old-style musical numbers while subtly nudging us with the homoeroticism of it all (and Tatum dances splendidly).
However, none of it really adds up or comes together in the brilliant fashion of the brothers’ last few efforts, and many of the jokes don’t really land either. Hail, Caesar! is set in the early 1950s, when television was a real threat to the movies’ cultural dominance and the pictures were getting bigger, splashier, and more formulaic -- eerily enough, a similar situation to what seems to be happening these days. Yet, if the Coens want to make a point about that, it never comes into focus clearly enough to give the industry in-jokes added punch.
Hollywood acolytes will catch all the references to old films and studio legends (apparently there was a real-life “fixer” named Eddie Mannix who worked for MGM), but it all feels insubstantial and underdeveloped, as if the Coens just wanted to include all this stuff they love but had no real solution for how to make it all work coherently.
On the plus side, the cast is game throughout; in addition to the captivating Brolin and buffoonish Clooney (who seems to revel in letting the Coens make him look dumb), Ehrenreich does breakout, charismatic work and the individual moments from Fiennes, Swinton, and Frances McDormand as the studio’s ghoulish chief editor are all memorable.
The period settings (both “real” and soundstage) and costumes are also appropriately eye-filling with regular Coens cinematographer and resident genius Roger Deakins milking the milieu for all it’s worth. But Hail, Caesar! never feels zany enough to come across as a true spoof; the movie’s more surreal touches feel awkward; and Brolin’s straight man, as watchable as he is, seems at times to be operating in a different, more sharply satirical picture. There are enough distinct pleasures on hand to make Hail, Caesar! mildly enjoyable, but like many of the programmers that the fictional Capitol Pictures grinds out, it will probably end up as more of a footnote than a chapter in the history of the Coens.
Hail, Caesar! is out in theaters Friday (Feb. 5).