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Hail, Caesar! sees the Coen brothers simultaneously paying homage to and mocking the Golden Age of Hollywood. The movie follows Eddie Manix (Josh Brolin), a "fixer" for Capitol Pictures who has to deal with the kidnapping of the studio's big star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) by a criminal gang called "The Future" while dealing with day-to-day problems of the studio's stars and being tempted by the offer of a lucrative job from Lockheed.
To say the Coen's are movie aficionados is to underplay how much their oeuvre contains winking nods, pastiches and homages to movies and genres past. With Hail Caesar they get a whole era to play with, Hollywood's beloved Golden Age is the setting for a day-in-the-life tale of one of the un-glamourous men behind the scenes.
Eddie Mannix is that man, played by Brolin like a stonefaced, latern-jawed P.I. ripped from a Raymond Chandler novel. Mannix is a complicated man: a devout Catholic who attends confession several times a day, he feels incalculable guilt over his inability to quit smoking but thinks nothing of slapping a young movie starlet. He's also clearly a devoted family men who yet spends most of his day at the studio. Obsessed with trying to do what's right, he is unconvinced by a job offer from Lockheed even though it provides more money (he'll be able to comfortably retire after ten years) and easier hours) and thrives on the difficulties provided by Capitol Pictures' stable of oddball contract players.
The main plot, such as it is, uses Clooney as its MacGuffin. The Coen favourite is Baird Whitlock, the shallow, vain and stupid star of Capitol's upcoming "prestige picture" Hail, Caesar! (subtitled The Story Of The Christ) a sword-and-sandles epic of the kind Hollywood used to regularly churn out. When two nefarious extras collude in his kidnapping, he awakes in a beach house in Malibu, surrounded by genteel middle-aged men and informed he is to ransomed to the studio for $100,000.
The motive for the kidnapping is not immediately apparent, and as we see Mannix attempt to resolve Whitlock's supposed disappearance without having to halt production on the film, he's also beset by other problems: the clean-cut, innocent, Esther William's-esque star of the studio's aquatic pictures, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant with a child of uncertain parentage and unmarried. The drawing-room drama being made by mannered, perfectionist in-house director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) is lacking a leading man. And to make matters worse, Mannix is regularly assailed by twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both Tilda Swinton) eager to dish the dirt on Capitol's biggest stars.
Hail, Caesar! is essentially made up of several vignettes with Mannix at the centre. The central kidnapping plot is abandoned for long stretches as we get the see the making of the movies-within-the-movie. These sequences are literal show-stoppers, in that Hail, Caesar! grinds to a shuddering halt so that we can watch a hallucinogenic under-sea dance sequence, or a hugely homoerotic song-and-tap-dance number from Capitol's Gene Kelly-a-like Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) called No Dames.
The would-be stuffy drama Merrily We Dance brings the biggest laughs when director Laurentz is forced to accept Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) as his lead. Doyle is the happy-go-lucky star of cheesy singing cowboy Westerns, far more at home riding horses, lasooing and saying "yee-haw" than he is in a movie that's all talk and no action. Ehrenreich steals the show as Doyle, who is far smarter than he first appears but who still goes along with the studio's every whim (when told that the studio are "changing his image" he simply nods and responds "OK") and Fiennes proves that he can be hilarious with the right material, making Laurentz face a mask of grimacing patience as he guides Doyle through the nuances of the phrase "would that it were so simple".
Unfortunately the centre of Hail, Caesar! isn't strong enough to hold. The kidnapping plot resolves itself in a completely tension-free manner, while entire subplots like that of DeeAnne Moran totally disappear. Clooney's self-absorbed buffoonery raises some smiles and Ehrenreich, Fiennes and Tatum all have hilarious moments but it's not enough to save a jumbled movie that just doesn't flow as well as it should, and doesn't seem sure about what - if anything - it wants to say.
Ultimately, Hail, Caesar! is no better than the shallow fictional movies Capitol Pictures churn out. The Coen's Hollywood pastiche is fun to look at, but ultimately hollow.
Image sources: Universal Pictures