Hollywood is the easiest target for filmmakers to satirize — not just because they know it firsthand, but because so much about the movie biz is inherently silly. Egotistical stars act like they’re undergoing the trials of Hercules when they have a tough shoot. Moneymen pontificate about “artistic vision.” Notorious bed hoppers play virgins, and cowboys play gentlemen.
Ethan and Joel Coen touch most of these familiar bases in Hail, Caesar!, their mocking tribute to the 1950s studio system and its talent for taking itself too seriously. A tunicclad George Clooney plays Baird Whitlock, the puffed-up star of a Ben-Hur-esque epic with a sanctimonious Christian message. When Whitlock is drugged and kidnapped by a group calling itself “the Future,” studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is on the case.
But Mannix has plenty of other crises to deal with, from the pregnancy of an unmarried ingenue (Scarlett Johansson) to the aforementioned rebranding of a cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) as the star of a drawingroom drama. And a pair of rival twin gossip columnists (a deliciously poisonous Tilda Swinton) threatens to put it all in print.
All this is fun to watch, in a rambling, antic way. But Hail, Caesar! lacks the solid storytelling of its best predecessors in this subgenre — notably Singin’ in the Rain and the Coens’ own Barton Fink. That’s partly because Mannix, the harried everyman, isn’t a terribly compelling character. While the fi lm is structured around a crucial choice he must make, the outcome is never in doubt.
Another problem is how much of the run time the Coens give to extended movie-pastiche sequences. It’s certainly fun to watch Johansson emulate Esther Williams in a water ballet, Channing Tatum sing and dance like Gene Kelly, or Ehrenreich stumble over highfalutin dialogue. But none of these sequences has much plot relevance, and they all extend beyond the point where the parody stops being fresh and starts feeling heavy-handed.
Granted, the Coens have a genius for making shaggy-dog stories into subversive comedy: The Big Lebowski is Exhibit A. Underlying the randomness of Hail, Caesar! is a running theme of faith — religious, political, personal — that draws some of the film’s strands together. The funniest scenes aren’t actually the Hollywood bits but the bickering among believers — for instance, religious leaders called in to grant the Christian epic their stamp of approval.
Clooney is hilarious as a gullible peacock who succumbs to full-blown ideological conversion without ever ceasing to believe that the real center of the universe is himself. Perhaps the fatuous Whitlock, and not the straight-arrow Mannix, should have been the protagonist. (Though Mannix experiences his own conversion of sorts, he remains a broad-strokes character: A sort-of gag about his fondness for going to confession doesn’t go anywhere.)
The Coens have a complex attitude toward faith, as A Serious Man showed, and one of the things they may or may not be ridiculing in this award-season release is Hollywood’s earnest faith in itself. (Think of the Academy’s fondness for movies such as The Artist and Argo, which depict movie making as heroic and meaningful.) Hail, Caesar! could be seen as a joyful a rmation of cinema at its silliest. It also could be seen as a subtle takedown of those who insist that cinema justify its value as a moral building block of civilization.
After all, in February, just seeing a lot of stars sing, dance and mug is enough to lift a moviegoer’s spirits. Far from one of the Coens’ best, Hail, Caesar! probably won’t inspire skeptics to say, “Hail, cinema!” But in this bleak landscape, it’s worth a look.