Well, the short review for this one is easy enough: If you liked The Hudsucker Proxy, then you’ll probably enjoy Hail, Caesar! If, however, you prefer your Coen brothers films to be more noir-ish and a little less blatantly screwball-y (as I do), then you’d be best off steering clear. Because Hail, Caesar! is relentlessly screwball-y, putting a far greater importance on gags and elaborate, “old-time Hollywood” set pieces than on plot and character.
Set in the early 1950s, Caesar! stars Josh Brolen as production head Eddie Mannix, a sort of “fixer” for a big movie studio who is having a really bad day. His biggest problem is that Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), star of the studio’s giant biblical epic currently in production, has been kidnapped by a mysterious group called “The Future.” A ransom has been demanded, and Mannix needs to get his movie star back before production delays get too costly. That’s not Mannix’s only pressing concern though. He’s also dealing with twin gossip reporters (both played by Tilda Swinton) who are snooping around, a posh director (Ralph Fiennes) not thrilled with his new leading man (Alden Ehrenreich), and a Hollywood starlet who discovers she’s pregnant (Scarlett Johansson).
The trailers have sold the kidnapping angle as being the film’s primary narrative, but, honestly, it’s really only used as an excuse to tell jokes and let Clooney buffoon it up for a while. (To be fair, Clooney plays an excellent buffoon.) There’s not much of an investigation and barely a rescue attempt; writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen have no interest in using the kidnapping to create any sort of urgency. It’s just another thing that happens during Mannix’s day. Of course, not every film has to be stuffed with plot twists and dramatic confrontation. In fact, the Coens’ previous film — Inside Llewyn Davis — is also a movie that doesn’t have much in the way of a traditional story. But, in that case, the character work is so strong and the world feels so lived in that it ultimately doesn’t matter. That film excels anyway.
This one, however, feels held back by its low-key approach to plotting. Also depressing: Hail, Caesar! has a impressive cast but uses it sparingly. Fiennes basically gets just one scene. It’s a cute scene, and he’s very funny in it. But it doesn’t really serve any greater whole. Johansson gets about a scene and a half. Jonah Hill shows up for maybe three minutes. The increasingly reliable Channing Tatum has two scenes he makes the most of — a lavish dance number and then a later bit that’s best just to watch without hearing about it first. But none of these things are inter-connected in any sort of interesting way.
The end result is a movie that feels like a lark, as if the Coens wanted to dabble around in the style of Hollywood’s golden age without stressing too much over the particulars. So they give us that Tatum dance number (which is indeed impressive and so homoerotic I assume it’s going to become a gay cultural touchstone). They give us Johannson in a sumptuous aqua-musical. They give us scenes of various fake movies that are played so broadly they’re almost spoofs of the westerns and melodramas of the era. There are laughs to be had but not much in the way of surprise. If that sounds like enough for you, you’ll probably dig Hail, Caesar! But, being that we all know what the Coen brothers are capable of when they’re firing on all cylinders (see: Llewyn Davis or Fargo or No Country For Old Men or seemingly half of their output), I was expecting more.