In the Coen Brother’s latest, Josh Brolin is what is known as a fixer in Hollywood, that is a guy who works to keep actors’ scandals out of the press. The suppression of any information that could damage a star’s reputation was an important part of the studio system in the 1950s. So it’s a period piece. The time period gives the directors an opportunity to create this ode to old Hollywood. But the story is so diffuse and free-form that it evaporates from the mind. Somewhere along the the way, unmarried actress DeeAnna Moran (Johansson) becomes pregnant and star Baird Whitlock (Clooney) is abducted, but those story developments are so neglected they barely register.
The Coens have managed to assemble an impressive cast. Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum all appear, many as versions of real life people. Only the Coen Brothers or possibly Wes Anderson could assemble an ensemble quite like this. Star gazers might be amused but, except for Tatum, they’re pretty much wasted. It’s telling when an unknown like Alden Ehrenreich is the actor that gets all the acclaim. Who? you ask. He’s appeared in a couple productions of note (Blue Jasmine, Stoker). However he’s never been so memorable as he is here playing Hobie Doyle, an “aw shucks” singing cowboy.
The Coens get a lot right, There’s send-ups of the escapist fare that Hollywood used to make at that time: westerns, musicals and grand epics with hundreds of extras. The movies within the movie are the purest part because they’re created with a lot of skill and panache. George Clooney is in a massively mounted Roman production that recalls Ben-Hur. There’s also a synchronized water ballet in the style that Esther Williams used to perform. It’s colorful. Channing Tatum even does a song and tap dance routine and the number is the single most enjoyable moment in the whole comedy. Of course it’s not sincere. The song “No Dames” presents a group of tap dancing sailors in a gently twisted spoof of On the Town.
None of the cinematic recreations of classic cinema are better than the real thing. As a recreation of a bygone era, they’re enjoyed as charming fluff. Yet there’s an acerbic aftertaste to the Coens’ view of Hollywood’s Golden Age that keeps this from being a loving tribute. There’s knowing little in-jokes too regarding how motion pictures are made. A rabbi, a priest and a Protestant minister are hired to weigh in on Capitol Pictures’ depiction of Christ in a biblical epic. The studio wants to make sure the portrayal doesn’t offend. It’s a comical vignette. There are others, but not enough to justify this meandering story in search of a point.
There’s never any indication that this is building toward anything. Nothing of consequence happens. This is just a series of blackout gags stitched together and marketed as a feature film. Edited up and watched individually it might inspire some titters, but as a full-length movie it’s a mess…and a boring one at that. Hail, Caesar! is a largely unfocused affair highlighted by a few bright spots that would be better viewed as clips on a comedy video website like Funny or Die. Channing Tatum and Alden Ehrenreich save this from being a complete waste of time. It’s not the worst Coen brothers picture, but it’s close.