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Review: ‘Hail, Caesar!’ a goofy look at old Hollywood

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

“Hail, Caesar!” is the Coen Brothers’ send up of and homage to the Hollywood studio system of yore, wrapped up in a hit-or-miss comedy that nonetheless carries the mark of its master craftsmen.

It’s got elements of screwball farce, a kidnapping plot (it’s the Coens, so of course there’s a kidnapping plot), and an appearance by Jonah Hill that lasts about a minute. It manages to come off flip and overstuffed, a star-packed exercise in plate-spinning.

But plate spinning can be entertaining, if the right guys are spinning the plates. And “Hail, Caesar!” is a Coen Brothers movie through and through; only Joel and Ethan Coen could or would concoct this tale of studio fix-it man Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) attempting to keep his projects on track in the face of scandals, extortions and good old fashioned incompetence.

Mannix is a production head at Capitol Pictures — the same studio featured in the Coens’ 1991 classic “Barton Fink” — who manages its daily operations and fixes its litany of problems. It’s his job to find a replacement actor when the lead falls out of director Laurence Laurentz’ (Ralph Fiennes) very British comedy of manners, and it’s his job to cover up the out-of-wedlock pregnancy of DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), the star of his elaborate aqua musicals. And it’s on him to keep the press — in an inspired turn, Tilda Swinton plays competing twin reporters Thora and Thessaly Thacker — off the scent of studio gossip.

Mannix also is on the case as Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) — the empty-headed star of his Roman epic “Hail, Caesar!” — goes missing from the set of his film. Whitlock is abducted by a group of politically motivated kidnappers who call themselves the Future, who want $100,000 in exchange for the safe return of the star.

The various plotlines meet and mingle — elements of Cold War paranoia and old-world theology are thrown in the mix — but never truly coalesce. Yet some moments stick, and there’s a great bit as Western actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) clashes with Fiennes’ finnicky director, who unsuccessfully attempts to get his leading man to utter the phrase, “would that it were so simple.”

The Coens love lampooning the studio system, but they also use it as a backdrop to stage several whimsical sequences of old-school Hollywood razzle-dazzle. They delight in the showmanship and choreography of those throwback production numbers (see the fantasy set pieces in “The Big Lebowski”), and they use Johansson in an Esther Williams-style routine that awes all on its own.

The same goes for the musical number starring Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), a send-up of a Fred Astaire routine that carries the title “No Dames.” It’s an inspired romp, its homoerotic underpinnings eventually boiling over the top.

Yet there’s no overcoming that “Hail, Caesar!” — despite its handsome look, lovingly captured by ace cinematographer Roger Deakins — is minor Coens. There’s plenty to admire on screen, but it will be best remembered in glimpses in career highlight reels for its principals.

Try though they might, the Coen’s name alone isn’t enough to triumph over middling material. Would that it were so simple.

agraham@detroitnews.com

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‘Hail, Caesar!’

GRADE: B-

Rated PG-13: for some suggestive content and smoking

Running time: 100 minutes