Coens' "Hail, Caesar!" Is By Turns Affable, Inaccessible

Who but “No Country For Old Men” filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen could construct a conundrum like “Hail, Caesar!” – a movie within a movie about movies that isn’t really about movies but rather the kooks behind them? Not that it’s hard to follow (it’s the film itself that has trouble following the Coens’ previous effort, immaculate masterwork “Inside Llewyn Davis”), but it is hard to figure.

It’s not so much a love letter to old Hollywood as it is a pastiche optimistically placed in a reverse time capsule, in hopes of traveling back in time to find an audience that might appreciate its bevy of in-jokes.

The screenplay puts forth a modestly heightened version of the studio system circa 1950, where the biggest stars worked under contract to majors and screenwriters wrote under a haze of suspected communist activity. Josh Brolin leads as Eddie Mannix, liaison for the fictional Capitol Pictures and the kind of tobacco-puffing, black-coffee-downing archetype that had just begun to fall out of favor in Tinseltown. As the studio’s fixer, he floats in and out of the narrative massaging behind-the-scenes drama on the part of the outfit’s biggest stars.

Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the leading man in the titular movie-within-a-movie, has been kidnapped by God-knows-who. DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johannson) is harboring a potentially scandalous bun in her oven. And Western dreamboat Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is struggling to adjust to traditional speaking roles. Each subplot is broadly funny except when it’s not, embracing slapstick one moment and then veering off into razor-sharp satire the next.

For long stretches it seems as though Clooney is much further over the top than he needs to be, painting over his character’s insecurities with rubbery facial expressions. But by the time the kidnapping storyline is resolved, his mugging seems perfectly on point. Similarly, Johansson’s role doesn’t come into focus until late in the game, her limited screen time making sense only in retrospect.

The way in which the Coens let their story unfold semi-episodically – letting scenes go on for ten to twelve minutes at a time without a care for characters offscreen – feels alien at first. The comedy is presented rather than pushed, a tactic that makes the pace feel slower than it is, but it brings out the color in each performance.

For example, Channing Tatum’s turn as a Gene Kelly-esque musical star exists entirely on the pic’s periphery but is delightful all the same (and leads to one of the movie’s biggest punchlines). Meanwhile, Ehrenreich – likely unknown to all but the few who saw 2013’s “Beautiful Creatures” – is revelatory, standing toe to toe with Ralph Fiennes (playing an embattled director) and then some.

There’s no shame in the film’s peculiarities, as much as they might frustrate some viewers. No, its failures mostly come in the form of unevenness, partially owing to Brolin’s dispirited performance. The actor, never one for jubilance, is flatter than a pancake here, overdoing his character’s inner conflict over a Lockheed Martin job offer to the point of listlessness.

Moreover, far too much of the cast is shorted on screentime (see: Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand, Alison Pill, Wayne Knight, David Krumholtz), an odd thing to say about a film that stews as much as this one. But it’s a testament to all of the great work going on within a merely good movie – one that plays despite its shortcomings.

At once gently amusing and piercingly funny, alternately disjointed and as locked-in as a heat-seeking missile, “Hail, Caesar!” ends up the most niche undertaking the brothers Coen have ever shouldered. The end result should attract and repel moviegoers in the same degree, virtually refusing an easy ranking among the Coens’ filmography. Would that it were so simple.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: February 5, 2016
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Screenwriter: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand, Wayne Knight, David Krumholtz, Fisher Stevens, Alison Pill, Max Baker
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some suggestive content and smoking)