Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking.
Running time: 106 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
The Coen brothers — my favorite filmmakers, I should mention at the outset — have always been hit-and-miss when it comes to straight-up comedies. For every “Raising Arizona” or “The Big Lebowski,” there’s an “Intolerable Cruelty” or “The Ladykillers.” All their films have some element of comedy in them, of course, usually of the dark variety. Even their violent films (“Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men”) and dramas (“Inside Llewyn Davis,” “A Serious Man”) feature several moments that make you laugh for the sheer brilliance of their absurdity.
Their latest, “Hail, Caesar!”, is their giddiest comedy to date, but it’s also hit-and-miss within itself. And no, this review won’t merely serve as a celebration of Joel and Ethan Coen’s prodigious cinematic output, although that would be appropriate given what their new movie is about. “Hail, Caesar!” is an exuberant embrace of Golden-Age Hollywood, gliding smoothly through various classic genres over a day in the life of a harried studio executive. Working with their longtime cinematographer, the great Roger Deakins, the Coens richly recreate a series of fake films which you easily could imagine were real — and some of them, you’ll wish you actually could see.
Those are the thrilling, knowing, winking highlights of “Hail, Caesar!”, which takes place in 1951. Here’s Channing Tatum, doing his best Gene Kelly impression as a lonely sailor in a beautifully choreographed, fluidly shot dance number (which takes a turn you might not expect — that’s the Coensy humor element at work). There’s Scarlett Johansson, brassy in an Esther Williams-style, bathing-beauty extravaganza (and here’s where Deakins gets to have an unusual amount of fun with Technicolor shades of red, yellow and blue). And then there’s Coens regular George Clooney as the venerable yet gullible star of the titular film, a sword-and-sandal epic that’s meant to be the fictional studio’s year-end prestige picture. (The whole thing is called: “Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ,” one of many examples of the brothers’ encyclopedic knowledge of and love for classic film. That was the full title of “Ben-Hur.”)
I actually wouldn’t have minded an entire film of “Merrily We Danced,” complete with behind-the-scenes turmoil. It’s a witty, British drawing-room comedy featuring the sweetly guileless Western actor Hobie Doyle (an enormously magnetic Alden Ehrenreich), who’s got a winning screen presence as long as he doesn’t have to open his mouth. Ralph Fiennes is the fastidious and precise director, Laurence Laurentz, who steadily loses his patience with the twangy actor who’s been thrust upon him. (Just watch the second trailer for “Hail, Caesar!” and tell me you don’t want more of this.) It would have been divine to see more of all these supporting players and more, including Jonah Hill in a small but intriguing role as a lawyer renowned for his trustworthiness (ha ha).
This is all a very long way of saying that the individual films within the film work like gangbusters. Vivid, distinct and lively, they were obviously made with great craft, affection and attention to detail. It’s the through-line tying them all together that tends to bog things down.
Josh Brolin stars as a studio fixer named Eddie Mannix — who’s actually not based on the real-life studio fixer, Eddie Mannix — a family man and devout Catholic. (The film begins and ends with Mannix making his daily confession of nothing terribly earth-shattering to a vaguely annoyed priest; the streaks of light splitting the booth’s darkness reveal Deakins at his visually dramatic best.) “Hail, Caesar!” follows Mannix as he tries to keep various simmering crises from boiling over. There’s the terrible casting of Doyle; the increasingly obvious pregnancy of Johansson’s starlet, DeeAnna Moran; and, most pressingly, the kidnapping of Clooney’s character, Baird Whitlock, by a shadowy group calling itself The Future.
Mannix must tend to all these troubles and more while simultaneously trying to hide them from a pair of inquisitive, identical-twin gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker. (Tilda Swinton does crisp and distinctive double duty as a Hedda Hopper figure, and she gets to wear twice the number of gorgeously tailored dresses and hats from the Coens’ longtime costume designer, Mary Zophres).
As is often the case in the Coen brothers’ films, religion comes into play, not only in Mannix’s Catholicism but also in the film-within-the-film, “Hail, Caesar!”, and in the notion that movies provide something to believe in — a sense of guidance, reliability and hope. This would serve as an excellent double feature with the Coens’ 2009 film “A Serious Man,” their semi-autobiographical tale of a Midwestern husband and father (the great Michael Stuhlbarg) struggling to keep his seemingly normal, suburban life from spiraling out of control. Both focus on men who trudge along, trying to do the right thing in a sea of corruption and selfishness, and who rely on their faith to steer them in the right direction when they’re feeling hopelessly lost.
Brolin’s story isn’t as flashy or fascinating as the fake films that bring “Hail, Caesar!” so vibrantly to life, meandering and tinged with melancholy as it is. And maybe the conclusion — which is abrupt and unsatisfying — is intended as such compared to the neatly packaged Hollywood endings that mark the made-up movies in “Hail, Caesar!” (They do this a lot, you know — the ambiguous ending. Often, it works and provokes thought and discussion. This time, it just kinda … ends.)
Then again, maybe this is one of the siblings’ movies that require repeated viewings to “get” what they intended, truly. Just to watch Channing Tatum tap-dance on a table top again, it’d be worth the time investment.