Despite the exclamation point in its title, the new Coen brothers film, Hail, Caesar!, isn't the sharpest or most emphatic of their many amazing efforts. A collection of sketches that both satirize and celebrate Hollywood of the 1950s, Hail, Caesar! lands the Coens in what for them is strange terrain: They've come up with a middle-ground addition to their idiosyncratic oeuvre with -- and this deserves underlining -- touches of entertaining brilliance.
There's a whisper of a story here: Fictional Capitol Studios finds itself in the midst of a major production. The movie is called Hail, Caesar!, and it carries the same heavily freighted subtitle as Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ. The plot, which offers echoes of The Robe focuses on a hardened Roman officer who eventually sees the light, rapturously submitting to a new faith when he encounters Christ on the cross.
Capitol's mega-buck epic stars Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a slightly dissolute movie star who is also slightly dim.
During the filming of a scene, Whitlock is drugged and spirited away by extras who demand a $100,000 ransom. As it turns out, they are rebels with a cause, leftist screenwriters enamored of the Soviet Union who meet regularly to be lectured by Professor Marcuse (John Bluthal), an unveiled reference to Herbert Marcuse, a hero of the New Left during the 1960s.
It falls to Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the studio's tough but perpetually burdened mogul, to return Whitlock to the set so that his mega-production can wrap. Eddie's part businessman and part fixer, a guy who's accustomed to covering the tracks of the studio's frequently wayward stars.
Eddie Mannix is modeled on a real-life MGM studio fixer of the same name. Here, Mannix is treated as decent but beleaguered man who's trying to keep the studio from running aground -- not an easy task when its stars have a penchant for landing themselves in embarrassing positions.
As Eddie puts out one Hollywood fire after another, he also entertains an offer from Lockheed, which wants to give him a high paying job that would allow for a more regular and presumably respectable life.
Now, very little about the plot matters. What makes the movie palatable are several winningly ludicrous snippets from Capitol's movies. Think of them as footnotes that are more interesting than the main body of the work.
One of the best involves a bone-headed decision to turn the studio's acrobatic cowboy star into a romantic lead, jamming him into comedy in which characters dress to the nines and speak in the kind of faux British -- or British-ish -- accents that were popular in some movies during the '30s and '40s.
Director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) is stuck with this egregious piece of miscasting. The scene in which Laurentz tries to prepare cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) for sophisticated patter might be enough to justify the price of admission.
The same goes for brief appearances by Tilda Swinton, who plays two roles -- gossip pedaling, twin columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker. Listen to the way Swinton says Eddie's name, giving it a twist that evokes the pleasures of a whole era of studio filmmaking.
And if you don't smile during a production number featuring Channing Tatum as a tap-dancing sailor who, along with his shipmates, contemplates life at sea without "dames," you're in an even worse mood than I usually find myself in.
And then there's a broadly comic bit involving Frances McDormand as C.C. Calhoun, a chain-smoking film editor.
For me, those were highpoint to be savored, along with numerous small touches.
Alas (to be as stilted as some of the dialogue in Capitol Studio's productions), not all of the sketches work so well. Though beautifully produced, an Esther Williams' style swimming number featuring Scarlett Johannson might have been included just to show that the Coens could do it.
Johansson plays DeeAnna Moran, a pregnant movie star who forces the studio to find ways to cover the fact that she's not married. Her story eventually leads to Jonah Hill, whose role amounts to little more than a forgettable cameo. Hill plays Joseph Silverman, a man who specializes in "personhood," a joke that's not really worth the trouble of explaining.
In A Serious Man, the Coens took on religion; their attempts to do the same here aren't nearly as rich. The movie opens with Mannix in a confessional booth where he establishes himself as a serious Catholic who's addicted to confession. Mannix feels guilty because he lies to his wife about having quit smoking, but his real guilt comes from working so hard to support a morally dubious and often lunatic enterprise.
Stretches of Hail, Caesar! proves only mildly amusing and some of the humor built around the Hail, Caesar epic struck me as more obvious than we expect from the Coens who've taken swipes at Hollywood before, notably in the feverishly brilliant Barton Fink.
Hail Caesar! may not rank at the top of Coen's impressive list, but it should do nothing to sour anyone on their work. My advice: Treat the movie as a smorgasbord. Pick what you like; forget the rest.