If you’re a fan of 1950’s cinema, you’ll likely find something to enjoy in Hail, Caesar! The latest comedy from the Coen Brothers satirizes and pays homage to everything, from Ben-Hur, to On the Town, to Million Dollar Mermaid. It’s essentially several vignettes tied together by a very loose plot. Some of these episodes are worthy of Hollywood’s golden age. Others tend to drag on and are ultimately forgettable. Even if the film is hit and miss, though, the parts that do work are too appealing to pass up.
At the center of the picture is Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix, a fast-talking, chain-smoking “fixer” who spends his days cleaning up the messes actors leave behind. George Clooney plays Baird Whitlock, the star of a movie within a movie, both of which are entitled Hail, Caesar! Mannix faces his greatest crisis yet when Whitlock is kidnapped and the studio receives a ransom note for $100,000. In addition to putting out that fire, Mannix must deal with several other scandals on the lot. It doesn’t help that a set of muddling twin reporters (Tilda Swinton) are constantly hunting for gossip. Plus, Mannix has a wife at home who insists that he quit smoking.
Being a Coen Brothers movie, you’d expect the dialog and comedy to be the highlight of Hail, Caesar! While the film encompasses much of the Coen’s offbeat wit, the written humor unfortunately isn’t quite up to their standards. There’s a particularly underwhelming exchange between Ralph Fiennes as a director and Alden Ehrenreich as a western actor who’s clearly been miscast. A scene like this has the potential to be a laugh riot, but it simply meanders with no end in sight. Once we get to the payoff later on, it kind of feels too little too late.
Then there’s the major storyline involving Whitlock’s kidnapping, which works in commentary on communism and underpaid writers. Somewhere in this plot, there’s a really smart parody trying to get out. Yet, the end result doesn’t amount to much. Granted, the same can be said about other farces the Coen’s have given us, such as The Big Lebowski and Burn After Reading. When considering what Hail, Caesar! could have been, however, it’s hard not to be a little let down.
While not every piece falls into place, there are still some pretty darn great moments here. Surprisingly, the best bits in the film are the musical numbers. We get an especially charming dance routine with Channing Tatum as a sailor looking for a dame. Scarlett Johansson makes a big splash in a stunning water ballet. Every second that goes by, you can see that the Coen’s have an undying love for this era of cinema. Basically, all of the fake movies they cook up are a delight to observe. It’s the backstage conflict that could’ve offered more.
What we’re left with is essentially the Coen’s equivalent to 1946’s Ziegfeld Follies, which was a series of extravagant musical numbers and sketches. Not every sequence in that film was necessarily a gem, but the standout moments certainly made it worth a gander. The same can be said about Hail, Caesar! At its worst, the film is uneven and unfocused. At its best, the film is just a ton of fun.