Hail, Caesar! isn’t the first time brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have made a dud comedy (for more on this, see The Ladykillers or Intolerable Cruelty or O Brother, Where Art Thou?). But they’ve never made one this half-baked and lazy. A barbed-wire valentine to 1950s-era studio Hollywood, as well as a meditation on the value of storytelling and the importance of movies, Hail, Caesar! is a goof with something to say.
Mostly, though, it’s just a goof, and not a particularly funny one. The movie is set over the course of one long day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of production and all-around “fixer” for the fictional Capital Pictures (the former home of Barton Fink). The movie follows Mannix as he wanders around the back lot putting out fires, dealing with temperamental celebrities, fending off gossip journalists and contemplating leaving the crazy circus of show business business altogether for a safe, quiet job at Lockheed.
Eddie (who is named after the famed Hollywood executive known for keeping the private lives of A-list actors private) is the sanest person in a movie stuffed with loonies, all of whom need his help. George Clooney plays a matinee idol who is in the middle of shooting a Biblical epic when he is kidnapped by a group of communists who call themselves “The Future.” Scarlett Johansson is the Esther Williams-like star of aquatic musicals trying to hide her pregnancy from the public.
Alden Ehrenreich (Tetro, Beautiful Creatures) is a likable lasso wrangler who has been promoted from B-grade Westerns to a high-toned, prestige drama directed by a sophisticated fop (Ralph Fiennes). Channing Tatum channels Gene Kelly as the song-and-dance man starring in an Anchors Aweigh clone. Tilda Swinton plays twin sisters, rival gossip journalists waging a silent war to see which one can come up with a hat ridiculous enough to outdo Hedda Hopper.
Instead of a plot, the Coens serve up a string of individual setpieces that allow them to pay homage to golden-era Hollywood. There’s an elaborately choreographed musical number — a bonafide show-stopper — in which Tatum does cartwheels and tap-dances while singing a cheerily subversive song. A prolonged scene in which Fiennes tries to direct Ehrenreich to properly enunciate the line “Would that it were so simple” is hilarious because the Coens let it run on for so long (they cap the joke 40 minutes later, after you’ve forgotten about it, with a knockout punchline).
The cast is so over-stuffed that some actors, such as Frances McDormand as an editor and Jonah Hill as a shady “professional person,” pop up for only one scene. The pace is frantic, but the movie is sluggish, even dull. The story is intentionally episodic, but the energy sputters and lags. What should feel like slam-bang farce often plods, because the Coens seem interested only in the big, splashy tributes to old school Hollywood.
Mannix, played by Brolin in a perpetual state of quiet suffering, is the least memorable protagonist of any movie the Coens have made: He could pass for The Man Who Wasn’t There. Mannix’s inner struggle — his doubt over whether his life’s work amounts to anything in such a vapid, cutthroat industry — is too noble for a movie as impish and playful as this one. Brolin seems to be acting in a different picture: He hasn’t gotten with the Hail, Caesar! program, and we don’t either.
Clooney, who the Coens like to cast in stooge roles, mugs his way through the movie, with diminishing results. Johansson pouts and poses but leaves almost no impression: She’s a blank. Ehrenreich steals Hail, Caesar! from his more famous co-stars, giving his earnest cowpoke a sweet, genial charm: You like him because he’s honest and he’s real, unlike practically everyone else in the film. But the movie isn’t about him. Hail, Caesar! is about having faith in entertainment as a worthy enterprise and championing Hollywood confections as escapist but still worthy art. The movie simply fails to make its case.
The Coens feel out of step this time; they’ve lost their rhythm the way they did in The Hudsucker Proxy, where the style consumed the entire picture, turning what should have been humorous and snappy into a grating chore. A scene in which Mannix meets with a reverend, a priest, a rabbi and an Orthodox scholar to consult on that Biblical epic should have been a classic: Instead, it thuds. When Fiennes’ director asks the befuddled Ehrenreich to add a “mirthless chuckle” into a line reading, you know exactly what he’s talking about. Hail, Caesar! is full of those.
Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Scarlett Johannson, Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill.
Writer-directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 106 minutes. Suggestive content, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.