'Hail, Caesar!' Is a Comedy Without Laughs

The Coen brothers’ artfully conceived but strained satire of '50s Hollywood gets the look right, but little else.

Hail, Caesar!

Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill, Dolph Lundgren, Clancy Brown, David Krumholtz, Alison Pill, Frances McDormand, Emily Beacham, Christopher Lambert, Fisher Stevens
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Universal Pictures
Year: 2016

With Hail, Caesar!, the Coen brothers tweak classic Hollywood and along the way, uncover some of the lies that might have allowed it to sleep at night. Unfortunately, the film is also somnolent, only occasionally stirring into some vague facsimile of what we've come to expect from the filmmakers.

These livelier moments include Tilda Swinton’s quivery and predatory presence as twin sisters who are also rival gossip columnists, Channing Tatum deftly cutting a rug during a big On the Town-like dance number with a not-so-subtle gay subtext, and Ralph Fiennes, as a sleek European exile director trying to coax a taciturn and nearly pre-verbal cowboy star through a scene of Lubitschian complexity. But as each one of these scenes nears a crescendo, the Coens either cut away or otherwise leave it stranded in a film that seems as lost as its protagonist.

That would be Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin much as he's played just about every other character he’s been inhabiting of late. Hyper-competent and buzzing with the caffeinated jolt of the crisis junkie, Mannix is the fixer at a Warner Bros.-ish studio in the '50s. He does everything from ensuring that productions stay on budget and on schedule to pulling starlets out of compromising situations by greasing policemen’s palms.

As the movie begins, he’s handed a whopper of a problem. The studio’s tentpole picture, a lugubrious sword and sandals epic called Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, is tossed into disarray when its star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) disappears.

Thinking Baird’s on some bender, Mannix tries to hunt him down and keep the Thacker twins (Swinton) off the scent by throwing them a faked romance between two up-and-coming stars. In what seems like a mix-up between some background blacklist material from the Coens’ script for Bridge of Spies and the kidnapping subplot from The Big Lebowski, it turns out that Baird has actually been taken hostage. The culprits are a Marxist “study group” who call themselves “The Future” who plan to use him to make the movie business deliver their message to the masses.

What message is that, exactly? That’s a difficult question to answer. (It may be buried somewhere in the last third of the film, by which point not much makes sense anymore). Hail, Caesar! is less interested in plot than in recreating '50s Hollywood via a series of strikingly conceived set pieces that run the gamut from drawing-room melodramas to singing cowboy comedies.

One of the best is a synchronized swimming segment where DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), a creamy-complected vision in a green mermaid's outfit is revealed to be a nasal, chain-smoking Brooklyn bruiser once the cameras are off. The swimming scenes, with their ceiling mounted camera angles and gorgeous choreography, offer spot-on recreations of Esther Williams spectacles, but to little effect for the rest of the film.

Hail, Caesar!'s straining for laughs recalls some of Joel and Ethan Coen's lesser efforts, like the painfully unfunny Burn After Reading. But the film sometimes suggests it has a deeper purpose. Mannix first appears confessing to a priest: we're soon aware that he's obsessed with feeling guilty and following rules. He also seems genuinely engaged in the theological free-for-all that erupts when he gathers a representative batch of clergy to divine how offended they might be by the movie that Baird just walked out on. But Mannix's questing for truth and purpose never fills the void left by the film's lack of decent comic material.

As a filmmaking team, the Coens thrive when they’re subverting genres that have tightly observed boundaries. Mannix seems to be embarked on a similar mission, working within Hollywood and the Church to expose their corruptions and foibles. But the free-form skits of Hail, Caesar! don't provide a tight framework his investigations. Lacking the careful introspection of A Serious Man or the manic surrealism of The Big Lebowski, the new film seems to be without purpose, too.

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