Much as I’m a devoted disciple of the work of the Coen brothers, I can admit there are all sorts of forecastable reasons to expect that a new film they’ve made might not quite work. The susceptibility to recurring flaws isn’t an automatic outcome of having such clear cinematic voices, but Joel and Ethan Coen have committed themselves so thoroughly to a bleakly comic outlook tinged with ironic detachment, a quality often conveyed with self-consciously rambunctious visuals, that certain predictable troubles can easily reoccur. Most noticeably, their viewpoint can manifest as a lack of sincerity that sets a narrative slamming into a brick wall before long. I’d even argue this crops up in some of their stronger films, such as Barton Fink, and any individual viewer’s appreciation for the work in question will likely be determined by the ability to accept and forgive the dusting of arch disdain. Usually, I can. On rare occasions, I can’t. When it comes to their latest effort, Hail, Caesar!, I land somewhere in the conflicted middle ground.
Hail, Caesar! is set in nineteen-fifties Hollywood, where Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) heads up production at Capitol Pictures. In the manner of a character in one of the screwball comedies Eddie’s studio might produce, he’s constantly on the move, addressing problems that could bungle shooting schedules or create a public relations nightmare for a contract player. While his main dilemma involves the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the studio’s biggest star in his final days of shooting the biblical epic positioned to the be the biggest prestige picture of the year, Eddie also has to contend with a flurry of other issues, all held up against the enticement of a more lucrative and less stressful job at Lockheed, for which he’s being actively courted.
The set-up allows the Coens to go romping through the cinematic styles of a bygone era. Besides glimpses of the bible epic, they get to play around with a musical, an aquatic dance spectacular, a cheesy western, and a stiffly refined drawing room drama. The satiric instincts of the siblings combine with their command of cinematic grammar to give these bits giddy life. I might think the musical number “No Dames” (performed in part by Channing Tatum with an athletic grace that deliberately invokes Gene Kelly) goes on a few beats too long, but there are also as many as a half-dozen individual highlights within it. The Coens manage homage, gentle mockery, and loving embrace all at once.
The platforms of endearing pastiche are dandy. It’s the pathways connecting them that are wanting. The exasperating trials of Eddie Mannix never build up the necessary headlong energy, making it seem like a farce caught in an early rehearsal, before the performers have transformed complicated blocking to muscle memory in order to operate at bang-bang speed. Where it should fly, the film ambles, which only serves to call attention to the thinness of the characters. Too many elements never progress much further than their initial conceits. It’s an amusing notion to cast Tilda Swinton in the dual roles of identical twin gossip columnists, but there’s not much of a joke to it beyond that. Only the subplot involving a cowboy actor (Alden Ehrenreich, in a marvelous performance) being forced to stretch, both personally and professionally, develops any momentum. There’s a quiet charm to watching him perform rope tricks while waiting for his starlet date (Veronica Osorio, evoking Carmen Miranda) or even struggling as a frustrated director (Ralph Fiennes) repeatedly gives him a line reading. Somewhere in that character and performance is the film that Hail, Caesar! could have been, the one that rivals Inside Llewyn Davis in its ability to use an era as setting for a story that has its own strong sense of purpose.