Hail, Caesar! Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich. Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.
The last time that writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen told a story about classic Hollywood, the result was the powerfully weird and haunting Barton Fink. And the last time they told a story about a twisty kidnapping investigation in LA, the result was the intricate and brilliantly funny The Big Lebowksi. The filmmaking brothers return to both themes for Hail, Caesar!, but the result isn’t nearly up to the standards of those two previous Coens masterpieces—or most of their other work, for that matter.
Set sometime in the 1950s, Hail, Caesar! is the story of a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of physical production for the fictional Capitol Pictures (the same studio featured in Barton Fink). Despite his nondescript job title, Eddie is essentially the glue that holds the movie studio together, functioning as a “fixer” who takes care of everything from rain delays on location shoots to actors’ trips to rehab (he’s loosely based on the real-life MGM fixer of the same name, who was a much nastier guy). On this particularly eventful day, Eddie’s main concern is the kidnapping of dim-witted movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from the set of big-budget Bible epic Hail, Caesar!, although he’s also dealing with the inconvenient pregnancy of starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) and the studio mandate to turn hayseed singing-cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into a dramatic leading man.
That’s only a partial accounting of Eddie’s to-do list, and the movie bounces from one set piece to another as he encounters a seemingly endless series of problems. Hail, Caesar! is strongest in its spot-on recreations of the various movies within the movie: a Gene Kelly-style song-and-dance number (featuring Channing Tatum putting his Step Up and Magic Mike experience to good use); a hokey Roy Rogers-style Western; Busby Berkeley-style aquatic choreography; an arch drawing-room melodrama; and the titular Ben-Hur-style blockbuster.
The Coens are less successful at combining those sporadically entertaining elements into a cohesive movie, one that attempts to address religious doubt, Communist infiltration and moral relativism. As a mystery, Hail, Caesar! is a complete bust (although its inconsequentiality is part of the point), and the movie’s comedy is an awkward mix of goofy slapstick and mannered wordplay. The actors work hard (sometimes too hard) to make every joke land, but Hail, Caesar! ends up as the kind of picture even Eddie Mannix might have a tough time wrangling into something coherent and satisfying.