The Coen Brothers have always been critical darlings, but their 17th film, the 1950s Hollywood-set comedy “Hail, Caesar!” has shown an unusually wide gap between critical raves and tepid audience response. This despite a star-studded cast that includes George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Josh Brolin, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum and Ralph Fiennes.
I come not to bury “Caesar” but to praise it … but, aw, hell, we all know where that’s going, so I may as well just plunge the knife in: “Hail, Caesar!” ranks in the Coens’ filmography somewhere above “The Ladykillers” but below “Intolerable Cruelty,” which is to say it has its moments, but not nearly enough of them.
Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, an old-time ’50s studio fixer whose job is to keep the unsavory episodes of Capitol Pictures’ stars out of the headlines. (The character is loosely based on a real MGM exec of the same name who oversaw stars like Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy.) He’s got his hands full with pregnant and unwed swimsuit star DeeAnna Moran (Johansson) and singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), an eligible bachelor who’s trying to cross over from hayseed to romantic lead.
Worse yet, the studio’s top leading man, Baird Whitlock (Clooney), cast in a sword-and-sandal epic, is kidnapped mid-shoot and held for ransom by a mysterious group called The Future (who turn out to be a coven of Marxist screenwriters of the kind that only existed in Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s fevered imagination).
Tilda Swinton turns up in two roles, as rival twin-sister gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker, while Ralph Fiennes plays precious Euro-emigre director Laurence Laurentz. (His scene with Ehrenreich on proper enunciation is a gem.)
Critics are suckers, straight up, for anything that has the scent of “Old Hollywood” about it — the good old days when stars were stars, there was no such thing as an “R” rating, and people would say stuff like “Gee, mister!” In that sense, “Hail, Caesar!” is like waving a bottle in front of a lush. When Hobie attends a premiere with a co-star named Carlotta Valdez, film buffs who know their Hitchcock will be snickering at the “Vertigo” reference, but a lot of people won’t even sense the joke. Ditto for a later scene at a Malibu beach house on the bluffs that nods to “North by Northwest.” The Roman film Baird stars in is a mish-mash of “Quo Vadis,” “The Robe,” and “Ben Hur,” while Channing Tatum’s tap-dance number is pure Gene Kelly.
The Coens have always been known for riffing on genre pics and classic Hollywood — see “True Grit”, “Barton Fink” or “The Hudsucker Proxy” — but “Hail, Caesar!” is a collage of homages and little else. It feels like they tried to work off the structure of their most successful comedy, “The Big Lebowski”: There’s a mysterious narrator, a kidnapping that’s really just an excuse for a bunch of meandering set-pieces, a McGuffin suitcase of money, and a couple of classic Hollywood musical number parodies. (“Lebowski” sent up choreographer Busby Berkeley, while “Caesar” does synch-swimming star Esther Williams.)
Despite “the film’s flurry of short sharp cameos, Brolin is surprisingly straight and dull in the lead, Clooney is on auto-pilot — having already done his Clark Gable impression in “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” — and Johansson seems to be reviving her foul-mouthed “Joisey girl” from “Don Jon.”
Overall, it seems like the Coens couldn’t come up with the memorable characters or chemistry of The Dude, Walter, Donny, Maude and The Jesus. Interestingly, “The Big Lebowski” is one of the few Coen brothers’ films where they wrote characters based on people they actually knew. Maybe they need a little less time on the set and a little more time at the bowling alley.