Hail, Caesar! seems like a lark — an inessential Coen Brothers film. It's not one of their best, but beneath the surface of this Old Hollywood satire lies a comforting statement from the siblings about their plans for the future.
Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, the guy behind the curtain of Capitol Pictures. He's a fix-it man, cleaning up all the messes leaking across the studio lot. A few of them don't really move the plot forward, such as Mannix's attempt to cover up the pregnancy of actress DeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) — the queen of "aquatic pictures."
The central conflict is the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (a silver-haired star not unlike George Clooney himself). In the midst of filming of a Roman epic — specifically "the tale of the Christ" — Whitlock is whisked away by a Communist group called "The Future." The group consists of bitter screenwriters bent on exposing the capitalist system of Hollywood. As they reveal, the film industry distracts Americans from economic evil by throwing eye candy at them — or "bread and circuses," as the Romans would say. (Of course, the humor lies in how The Future discusses this idea while Clooney’s character sits in gladiatorial garb.)
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The film's jab at the Hollywood machine, doling out escapist diversions, is rather tired and simplistic. Fortunately, the Coens' quickly shake themselves out of this idea. And they do so largely through Mannix. Near the end of the film, he wrestles with the choice of staying in the studio system or accepting a job from Lockheed Aircraft. Even though he's tired of trudging through the sandbox of Hollywood, Mannix leans toward remaining a studio head because "it feels right." This feels like the Coens' way of saying they're not jaded yet. Like Mannix, they're in this business for the long haul.
Mannix's change of heart about showbiz is a tender, refreshing note in this otherwise middling movie. It has its moments, such as a gaspingly funny scene in which a snobby director (Ralph Fiennes) struggles to direct a western heartthrob (Alden Ehrenreich) in a stuffy costume drama. But overall, this is one of the Coens' weaker comedies. And it essentially feels "recycled," like a patchwork of what they did in other period pieces.
Hail, Caesar! is ultimately a minor work from the Coen Brothers. At times, it feels almost as sloppy and thrown together as the messes that Mannix spends the whole film trying to clean up. Even when they're working within the realm of broad comedy, the Coens' usually deliver films that linger in your memories. These are world-class filmmakers who have written and directed some of the best films ever made, some of my all-time favorites. Hail, Caesar! isn't one of them.