The Coen brothers are “Barton Finking” it up again with “Hail, Caesar!” — a screwball comedy about the massive studio system of Hollywood’s heyday. But what could have been a golden opportunity to spoof the noir genre turns into a manic jumble, ”the duo’s most bizarre film since “Burn After Reading,”that attempts to say something about religion and faith. If only I knew what that message actually was.
Josh Brolin returns to his “Gangster Squad” roots as Eddie Mannix (based on his real-life counterpart who worked for MGM), a “fixer” for Capitol Pictures in 1950s Los Angeles. It’s his job to make sure the studio’s biggest stars keep their noses clean and personal lives out of the tabloids so as not to taint the American public’s immaculate image of them (think Rock Hudson and Henry Wilson).
Who are the hottest celebrities of the decade, you may ask? If you guessed Humphrey Bogart or Lauren Bacall, you’d be wrong. Instead, there’s Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) and DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson). Like any good tough guy of that decade, Mannix has no problem slapping some sense into any of them. It’s a hard job with irregular hours, but he’s good at it. At the same time, he’s being courted by Lockheed Martin, which is offering him to leave his world of movie “make-believe” and accept a real career with sizeable pay and stock options.
As usual, the Coens enlist a cavalcade of A-list actors like George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum to bring the movie to life. The only hitch is that almost all these great personalities are woefully underused with only a handful of scenes each. In particular, Hill’s role even more head-scratching than the one he had in “Django Unchained” as he has a total of two lines of dialogue.
Things heat up when Whitlock is abducted from the set of Capitol’s biggest picture of the year, “Hail, Caesar!” a big budget sword and sandals epic about Jesus and the Romans. Just so no one’s offended by it, Mannix recruits a round table of holy men to sign off on the script, which results in the movie’s funniest scene where priests and a rabbi debate the nature of God. It’s an Abbot and Costello type bit mixed with the humor of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen when the rabbi declares, “God is a bachelor and he’s very angry!” Then an incomplete reel for the film is filled with title cards like “Divine Presence To Be Filmed,” undermining any dignified mystique of classics like “The Ten Commandments.”
To get his actor back, Mannix must pay $100,000 to a group calling itself “The Future” which is actually a nebbish group of Communist screenwriters (Dalton is sadly not present) whose talk of the corrupt studio capitalist system is enough to get the dim-witted Whitlock to join the Party. While Clooney is usually the most charismatic and interesting face on-screen, his character doesn’t really have depth here except for a hilarious gag about how he got his first big break on the big screen.
Some of the more interesting characters include Hobie Doyle, a somewhat slow-witted “Lone Ranger” type of Western actor who’s assigned to star in an elegant musical where his accent is totally out of place. His interchange with director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) on how to deliver a certain line and, more importantly, how to say his name, is one of the movie’s high points. Then there’s a Gene Kelly-like dance number from a bunch of sailors (led by Tatum) who sing about how they won’t see any dames while on the high seas. Even Tilda Swinton has an excellent turn as identical twin sisters, one writing for the gossip columns, the other trying to be a respected journalist.
From the trailer, one would assume the movie to be a funny mystery caper about a kidnapped actor in the Golden Age of movies where the fixer recruits the aid of the studio’s employees to track him down. No such luck. By the end, you’re wondering what the movie’s ultimate point is as it tries to outdo itself in completely outlandish plot developments that are stereotypical of the Coen siblings such as a Soviet sub emerging from the depths of the California coast.
Is it a farce on America’s Second Red Scare, the male-dominated conventions of the era? Or is it about answering to a higher power? The movie doesn’t hold back in bashing us over the head with religious motifs from an all-powerful, but faceless studio exec in New York to Moran’s fatherless child to Mannix’s constant trips to the confessional. On this front, Michael Gambon’s narrator is practically useless. Perhaps it requires multiple viewings for complete understanding.
For a meta-movie about the motion picture business, “Hail, Caesar!” is a total success in its depiction of a period gone by. In terms of plot and comedy, it’s a non-sequitur failure that draws little laughs and is so scattershot that it feels like a movie plagued by unnecessary studio-mandated rewrites and reshoots that have reduced it to a shadow of the motion picture it could have been. I feel your pain, Orson Welles.