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The Coen brothers have returned with their first comedy since 2008’s “Burn After Reading.” While Joel and Ethan can seem to do no wrong when it comes to dramas like “No Country For Old Men” and “True Grit,” their comedy record is downright spotty, with outright winners like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “Raising Arizona,” the cult-classic “The Big Lebowski” and the undervalued “Hudsucker Proxy” standing in stark contrast to the virtually unwatchable “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers.”
So how does the star-stuffed Hollywood satire “Hail, Caesar!” fit into their filmography? It depends what part you’re talking about.
Set in the 1950s, “Hail, Caesar!” is a zippy slice of life of Eddie Mannix (strong-jawed and mustachioed Josh Brolin) a Hollywood fixer tasked with keeping the stars of Capitol Pictures likeable, virginal and free of scandal. Sometimes that means literally slapping some sense into a celebrity who won’t toe the line, or hiding a casting-couch canoodle or a baby on the way. Other times, that means finding your boozing, womanizing leading man so the studio doesn’t go over budget on the sprawling epic for which this film is named.
The main thrust of “Hail, Caesar!” is Mannix’s efforts to track down mega-star Baird Whitlock (a gamely goofy George Clooney), who’s been kidnapped by a mysterious batch of men calling themselves “The Future.” But this isn’t the only fire Mannix needs to douse. There are troubles with a dull-witted but sweet cowboy (a scene-stealing Alden Ehrenreich), a pretentious and furious director (Ralph Fiennes in glorious “Grand Budapest Hotel” mode), a charming song-and-dance man (Channing Tatum doing his best Gene Kelly), a sneering water ballerina (a sparklingly hilarious Scarlett Johansson), and a pair of twin but dueling gossip columnists who smell blood in the water (Tilda Swinton times two). It’s an embarrassment of riches, but unfortunately it seems the Coens can’t sift the gold from the pyrite.
Fans of Classic Hollywood will go gaga over the sly allusions to real stars and real movies. Each “movie star” within “Hail, Caesar!” seems like a caricature of a real Hollywood luminary, from Carmen Miranda to Gene Kelly and Esther Williams. And there are nods to a slew of beloved movies, whether in iconography like the singing sailors of “Anchors Aweigh” or the none-too-subtle gay subtext of the mostly male dance number in “Gentleman Prefer Blondes.” To their credit, the actors do an incredible job of bringing a bounce and knock-you-down charm to these larger-than-life personas — which is not to say Tatum can hold a candle to Kelly, but he gives his all and delivers a song and dance number that’s downright jubilant.
“Hail, Caesar!” is at its strongest when taking a cue from “Singin’ in the Rain,” parodying Hollywood’s absurdity through behind-the-scenes shenanigans. The strongest sequence, hands down, is when the earnest cowboy is miscast in a chic prestige drama. The Coens make a meal out of every moment, creating a comedic tension as Ehrenreich awkwardly enters and we wait for this doe-eyed action star to deliver a withering line with an accent thicker than molasses; the anticipation of disaster is brilliantly delightful. You may have seen a clip from this section revolving around the line “Would that it were so simple.” Out of context, it did little for me, but within the full power of Ehrenreich and Fiennes delicious exchange, I laughed so hard and so long that I cried. Similarly sharp and silly scenes are laced throughout “Hail, Caesar!” Regrettably, so too are laborious monologues about religion, politics and economics. Each time the action slowed to a crawl so that Hollywood could be analyzed under one of these lenses by smug intellectuals, often so too did the comedy.
It’s intriguing that the Coen brothers are exploring their own relationship with Hollywood and moviemaking through this zany comedy. That alone makes it worth a rewatch. As they lampoon the egos and deceptions inherent in Hollywood deal-making, they also relish in the medium’s power to manifest fantasy, inspire dreams, and change the world. But these grand ideas feel too disconnected with the movie’s greatest moments, and so make for a jaunty but uneven experience.
Personally, I was disappointed that so many of the stars promoted in the movie’s marketing have little more than five or 10 minutes of screen time. It feels like a waste of great actors and great characters. Most of the movie is dedicated its least-compelling figure, following Brolin’s stern fixer around on every errand, call and crisis. And along the way the wacky personalities and egocentric movie stars are hastily cut from the narrative, their threads left dangling as we tumble into a big final pronouncement that feels shallow in light of all we’ve seen.
“Hail, Caesar!” opens Friday.