Imagine the madcap Hollywood antics of Barton Fink cranked up to another, more frantic tone and you've got the Coen Brothers' Hail, Caesar! in a nutshell. The film is both a zany love letter to the golden age of Hollywood and a somewhat pillowy rebuke of its flaws, but with its string of musical numbers and wide array of gorgeous celebrity co-stars it works best as an enjoyable variety show. This journey down memory lane is worth the trip but won't rank among the brothers' more substantial efforts.
Set in 1950s Hollywood, the film stars Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, a big studio "fixer" running Capitol Pictures. Basically, Eddie's job is to keep the trains running and the stars where they need to be, but he's having misgivings about the whole thing. The Coens add an odd religious tone right from the outset as Eddie confesses his sins to a priest, a daily occurrence, apparently. The strangely-flavored film shows Eddie to be both a saint, at least in Hollywood terms, and yet a guy who casually slaps around an actress for taking racy photographs.
It's hard to tell where the Coens are coming from until the plot, or what passes for one, kicks in. It involves the kidnapping of the studio's top star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), from the set of their biggest film, a Ben-Hur style epic in which he plays a Roman general who comes to believe in the power of Christ. It's over-the-top and ridiculous, of course, with Clooney goofing around in numbskull mode, which is exactly how the Coens like him. Meanwhile, poor Eddie never gets a moment to breathe. He's being courted by Lockheed Martin for the budding aviation industry, he's dealing with Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich, brilliantly stupid) a moronic Western star who has been forced into a drawing room drama for seriously perplexed director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), who can't understand why the actor can't drop his twangy southern drawl. Scarlett Johansson dives in as a promiscuous starlet with an image problem, while Channing Tatum sings and dances in his sailor suit during the film's most outstanding scene. He isn't in the film long, but Tatum captures the glow and style of an old-fashioned Hollywood star.
The Coens glorify in the little details, and film historians will no doubt have a ton of fun picking up on them. There's Tilda Swinton as the twin gossip rag columnists (they always appear one right after the other) digging up dirt on Eddie's stars, who are frequently put into phony romantic relationships just to help build their public personas. Best is Frances McDormand as a chain-smoking, celluloid-loving editor chomping her way to a nearly fatal end. There's just as much that doesn't work, including the reveal of Baird's kidnappers, members of a Communist think tank who proceed to fill his empty head full of anti-capitalist rhetoric. The dialogue simply isn't as sharp during these scenes, and the Coens let it drag on far too long with little payoff.
The whole thing is kind of a mess, but a happy, nostalgic mess. The film concludes with Mannix making a final confession that suggests the Coens were aiming for deeper meaning, but it's as phony as the over lit studio backlots where vacuous celebs ply their trade.
Rating: 3 out of 5