The Coen brothers have hardly made one film that wasn’t coated with irony and drizzled, at least a little, with disdain. Their methodology suggests that to mock your subject is somehow the best way to locate its essence. It worked, to varying degrees, in films like Fargo, The Big Lebowski and A Serious Man. The brothers’ latest, Hail, Caesar!, set in 1950’s Hollywood, is a farce and quasi-caper, with characters ripe for ridicule — vacuous movie stars, pompous directors, jaded screenwriters and despotic studio heads. The Coens’ best films involve characters who, often by accident, are swept up in some larger, almost elemental whirlwind that overwhelms and befuddles them. They track through the mud and are surprised to come away so filthy. Thus the Hollywood machine, with its surface sheen and hidden sleaze, befits the filmmakers’ taste for parody, and the brothers paint an arch caricature of assembly-line genre filmmaking. They mock, definitely, but what’s missing, I think, is the essence. Hail, Caesar! entertainingly skims Hollywood’s shiny exterior, without ever reaching its soiled core.
The story follows the stressful working life of Eddie Mannix (a beleaguered Josh Brolin), an executive at Capitol Pictures, a pretend Major studio during the McCarthy years. Shot overhead with rows of sound-stages surrounded by impenetrable walls, the studio starts to resemble a fancy penitentiary, or maybe a concentration camp. It also kind of looks like Rome before the fall, especially since half the grounds have been overtaken by marble staircases, grand pillars, stone idols and roaming chariots, for the biggest picture in production at Capitol: the eponymous Hail, Caesar! An historical epic in the tradition of Cecil B. Demille, it’s about some Roman general who meets and is captivated by Christ. The general is played by handsome idiot Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who’s almost as well-known for his benders and liaisons as his movies. Clooney plays him like a movie star who’s constantly “acting”, all confused brows and eyes widened in wonder, someone with so little Self he can be directed by everyone around him. Whitlock is like Kirk Douglas, but with the sleazy not-so-private life of young Robert Downey Jr. He’s a gossip’s darling, whom rival twin journalists (both played with haughty irritability by Tilda Swinton) constantly stalk the lot to get the scoop on. When Whitlock, days before the picture is scheduled to wrap, goes missing, everyone assumes he’s sleeping off a drunken episode; no one suspects that two nefarious extras have orchestrated Whitlock’s kidnapping, and driven him out to a cliffside mansion in Malibu, where several argumentative men, a group calling themselves The Future, hold him hostage and demand a ransom from the studio.
Hail, Caesar! is partly about Mannix’s half-hearted efforts to resolve the crisis, but mostly it’s about the random goings-on at the studio. We’re introduced to several of Capitol’s most profitable players. They may distract from the threadbare “plot”, but the movie is most entertaining when it goes behind the scenes of movie artifice and creates exaggerated versions of beloved genres and icons. Scarlett Johansson, for instance, plays DeeAnna Moran, the ethereal star of dreamy aquatic musicals with the kaleidoscopic staging of Busby Berkeley. Moran is a public angel and a private hussy, who’s latest would-be scandal leads her to the studio’s loyalest tool, Jonah Hill as a bureaucratic zombie slave, basically a professional patsy. The Coen brothers have a lot of fun recreating sequences based on classic film styles. The most raucous might be a Gene Kelly-inspired musical number, wherein a barroom of on-leave sailors tap-dance a lament about how there aren’t any “dames at sea”. Led by the soft-shoe of Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), they rub and bump against one-another in fits of homoerotic showmanship. It’s a trite gays-in-the-Navy gag, but made funny by Channing’s toe-tapping boyishness and the filmmaker’s sweet belief that, in Hollywood’s innocent 50’s, balletic sailors could be masculine in their way, just as John Wayne and Gary Cooper could be in theirs. The biggest star at Capitol is Western hero Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a stuntman turned leading man who croons like Dean Martin in Rio Bravo and ropes outlaws like Wild Bill. At one point, Doyle is miscast in a prestige costume drama presided over by a supercilious director named Laurentz Laurence (Ralph Fiennes); he’s forced to repeat the same line ad nauseam, because he’s unable to shed his cowboy gait and “Howdy Ya’ll” cadence. It’s the film’s one excellent scene, as it endears us to Doyle (who really does want to do a good job) and shows how the studio slackly reshapes him, the only authentic performer they have, into something he isn’t. Later, when he’s told exactly which starlet must accompany him to his premier, it’s just par for the course.
The Coen brothers condescension toward their subjects can be hilarious, especially when they’re dealing with vapid movie stars and inane set pieces, such as the title song of Doyle’s ridiculous Musical-Western, That Lazy Moon. But when it comes to more complicated ideas, like how cinema and religion get conflated, they can’t get their lasso around anything cogent. Hail, Caesar!, for instance, is both a blockbuster and a religious film, and Mannix, its patron saint, embodies Hollywood’s supposed sanctimoniousness. He’s a good Christian, who confesses around once a day, but a lousy human being, a corporate stooge who neglects his family and exploits his employees. This conflict is most explored in a perfunctory subplot about whether Mannix will ditch his studio gig for a cushy position at Lockhead airplanes; it’s neither compelling nor particularly enlightening about how Hollywood affects the souls of men. His final decision feels as inconsequential as the resolution of Whitlock’s abduction, and both rely on easy solutions. Hail, Caesar!, an often amusing parody, falls somewhere between the geeky deference of Scorsese’s Hugo and the hard-line indictment of Altman’s The Player, but like Whitlock after a bender, is not always sure exactly where it has landed or how it got there.