Joel and Ethan Coen seem to be struggling with ambivalence to the film industry in their latest, Hail, Caesar! It takes place in the early 1950s when the studios had their own struggles with the impending explosion of television threatening their existence. Capitol Pictures production head Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) spends his days and nights putting out fires with damaged actors, directors, and other assorted players. He has an offer on the table for a nice everyday job with Lockheed and his decision whether to stay or go is treated (quite literally) as one of Biblical proportions.
The film’s title is one shared with a Roman epic meant to be Capitol’s blockbuster of the year. It stars Baird Whitlock and he’s played by George Clooney in a welcome continuation of the actor playing extraordinarily dumb guys in the Coen universe. These directors either realized years ago that Clooney excels in these roles or have secret contempt for him. It’s probably the former. Baird is kidnapped by a group of gentlemen who are either underpaid and frustrated screenwriters, Communist sympathizers, or both. His return to the set means a handsome ransom paid by Capitol.
That is just one of many issues that Mannix deals with during his workday. They include the synchronized swimming Esther Williams type starlet (Scarlett Johansson) whose squeaky clean image is polar opposite from the real story. And the Western crooning leading man (Alden Ehrenreich) clumsily trying his hand at serious drama.
Much of this simply appears to be an excuse for the brothers from Minnesota to play around with genres popular in the era. Channing Tatum pops up as a tap dancing sailor making an energetic and silly musical. The works of the aforementioned movie stars lets the Coens give us scenes from Westerns, Bible epics, and aquamusicals. Fans of the period will almost certainly appreciate it all more than those unfamiliar.
Certain performances stand out. Some of the more recognizable faces (Johansson, Jonah Hill as a studio problem fixer) are given little material. Lesser known Ehrenreich is quite a find and he shares a very funny sequence with an exasperated director played by Ralph Fiennes. Tilda Swinton is on point in a dual role as haughty twin gossip columnists.
The overall theme is of Mannix’s wondering if his crazy job is inconsequential. You get the feeling from time to time if it’s the Coens thinking that themselves. We saw it in 2008’s superior Burn After Reading, a picture that concluded with a conversation about its own unnecessary existence. That also seemed to serve as a statement about the spy thrillers it was sending up. Here the message is a little murkier and quite a bit less humorous. Joel and Ethan Coen have certainly earned the right to do whatever they want and Hail, Caesar! still has plenty of moments that remind us why they’re such cinematic treasures. The ambivalence that I mentioned earlier that permeates their exercise here? We feel it a bit as well, however.
**1/2 (out of four)