ReelBob: ‘Hail, Caesar!’

By Bob Bloom

Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Hail, Caesar!” is a series of funny and satiric sequences — vignettes, really — that fail to mesh as a cohesive motion picture.

The film’s point of reference is murky. Set during the Hollywood studio system of the late 1940s or early 1950s, it’s difficult to tell whether it is lampooning movies, the communist scare that gripped the industry during that era or the artifice of filmmaking.

In trying to encompass all three, the movie lacks a definitive focus and theme.

The one constant that ties together all these threads is Josh Brolin as studio fixer Eddie Mannix, who spends a harried day resolving problems linked to his major stars, all the while contemplating a big change in his life.

As a side note, if the name Eddie Mannix sounds familiar, it is because a real-life Eddie Mannix was the right-hand man to MGM boss Louis B. Mayer for many decades and was the studio’s main fixer and enforcer.

If a star was drunk and killed a pedestrian, if an actress became pregnant, it was Mannix’s job to make those problems disappear by bribery or whatever means necessary.

Brolin’s Mannix serves in a similar capacity, and he is adept at both slapping the senses back into a buffoonish leading man or extolling the virtues of family to a pregnant, twice-married star.

One of the film’s drawbacks is that the Coens appear conflicted: They seem to want to glamourize Hollywood’s studio era, while also showcasing the sleaziness and phoniness underneath the tinsel.

The major story centers around the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the studio’s biggest star, who is in the midst of filming a biblical epic entitled, “Hail, Caesar!”

Film buffs will recognize it as a parody of such films as “Ben Hur” and “Spartacus.”

Mannix also must deal with the out-of-wedlock pregnancy of DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), his popular Esther Williams-like aquatic musical star.

To complicate his day, Mannix’s New York boss orders him to change the image of singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) by casting him as the lead in a drawing-room drama directed by Lawrence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes).

The kidnappers of Whitlock demand a $100,000 ransom for the return of the star, which Mannix must stash on a soundstage where Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), a Gene Kelly-like song-and-dance man, is shooting his latest musical.

While all these plotlines don’t fully coalesce, they do resolve themselves in an entertaining manner.

Clooney offers a broad performance as the thick-headed, self-grandiose Whitlock, who is won over by his kidnappers’ political convictions.

Something special occurs when Clooney works with the brothers. He trusts them enough to allow himself to be silly and childish in their hands without looking foolish. The Coens instinctively know how to tap into their star’s gift for unsophisticated comedy.

The most delightful characters are Ehrenreich’s Doyle, a Gene Autry-Roy Rogers clone lost in a new world of dramatic dialogue, but who gamely tries to please his demanding director, and Tatum’s Gurney, whose big dance number is definitely one of the movie’s high points.

Johansson is fun as Moran, an all-American sweetheart on-screen, but a tough-as-nails, New York-accented dame off-camera.

The movie seems to echo moments from earlier Coen works such as “Barton Fink” and “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” It simply fails to reach the heights of those productions.

While “Hail, Caesar!” may not rank as one of the Coen brothers’ best films, it does offer enough flashes of levity, wit and simple entertainment to have you smiling as you leave the multiplex.

Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. His reviews appear at ReelBob (reelbob.com) and The Film Yap (filmyap.com). He also reviews Blu-rays and DVDs. He can be reached by email at bobbloomjc@gmail.com or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom. Other reviews by Bloom can be found at Rottentomatoes: www.rottentomatoes.com.

 

HAIL, CAESAR!
2½ stars out of 4
(PG-13), suggestive content, smoking

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