Hail, Coens! Even when their films aren’t entirely successful — as Hail, Caesar! is not — they are always fascinating to watch and to ponder. This one is in the same realm as The Hudsucker Proxy and O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Burn After Reading for its exuberant joie de cinema. Hail is a helluva lot of fun… but it’s too scattershot to ever settle on saying the things it has to say, and it never gives most of its many characters — too many, probably — room to work as stand-ins for the ideas the Coens want to explore.
We follow Capitol Pictures’ “head of physical production” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin: Everest, Sicario) for a day as he bounces around movie sets fixing problems with casting, troubleshooting personal predicaments of movie stars that could be potentially embarrassing for the studio, and generally keeping everything running as smoothly as possible. The entire cast is absolutely fantastic and clearly having a ball, especially in the delightful pastiches of 1950s filmmaking that the Coens let themselves indulge in; the song-and-dance number from a musical about sailors has absolutely no bearing on the plot, but it’s wonderful, not least because they managed to transform Channing Tatum (The Hateful Eight, Magic Mike XXL), as one of Capitol’s big stars, into Gene Kelly. And the Ben-Hur-esque “prestige picture” the film borrows its title from, Hail, Caesar!, sets up a marvelous joke that plays with that famous (and most likely apocryphal) quote about faking sincerity that rummages around with Hollywood’s onscreen pretense and offscreen phoniness and kinda sorta compares it with genuine but unseen and unnoticed personal integrity, as embodied by Mannix’s religious faith.
What’s going on in the crux of the tale — which revolves around Caesar’s star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney: Tomorrowland, The Monuments Men), getting kidnapped off the set by a shadowy organization known as The Future — never seems to cohere into making a solid point, though it certainly seems to be trying to. There’s some fun to be had in hashing over what it all means: Whitlock’s situation seems to be a rip on the notion that Hollywood was infested with commies in the 1950s (and so this film becomes an interesting companion piece to the recent Trumbo), but nothing is ever quite as funny as it seems to be aiming for, and none of it cuts very deeply. The same is true for the concurrent stories, like the one in which a cowboy action star (Alden Ehrenreich: Beautiful Creatures) gets shoved into a sophisticated drawing-room romance for which he is woefully wrong; it might be making some sort of commentary on the end of the era when stars were the property of studios to do with as they wished. Or the running not-quite-gag in which twin rival gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton: Trainwreck, The Grand Budapest Hotel) hit up Mannix for a scoop on Whitlock, and threaten to reveal an ignominious story that had supposedly been buried years earlier.
Hail, Caesar! feels like a bunch of sketches in search of a unifying theme, and all of them end in disappointing anticlimax. I wanted to love it, but I had to settle for liking it in spite of itself.