Hail, Cesar! movie review: 'New Coen brothers comedy is fun but patchy'
The Coen brothers are at their best when they blend their trademark whimsy with dark and violent themes. Films like Miller's Crossing, Fargo and No Country for Old Men oscillate disconcertingly between surreal humour and moments of baroque bloodshed, and ask real questions of their audience. But when the whimsy is disconnected from the darkness, something starts to go wrong.
Out and out Coen comedies like Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading aim for the screwball charm of Preston Sturges and Frank Capra, and somehow fail. Perhaps their pure comedies are too self-consciously retro, and Hail, Caesar! is another case in point. A retro movie if ever there was one, it reaches back into Hollywood's golden age to tell the story of a studio fixer with an awful lot on his plate.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) keeps things ticking over at Capitol Pictures, but spends most of his time keeping his stars' messy private lives out of the press. A devout Catholic, Eddie confesses his own minor failings to his weary parish priest each morning before heading to the studio to tackle some real sins. A bad day for Eddie begins with the discovery that his unmarried leading lady DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant, and not entirely sure who the father is. She's famous for her synchronised swimming routines, and is already finding it hard to fit into her mermaid costumes.
Meanwhile, the studio's top director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) is up in arms about the fact that a handsome but dim cowboy actor called Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) has been foisted on him by his bosses, and can't act to save his life. To add to Eddie's woes, an executive from aviation giant Lockheed is offering him big money to quit movies and go work for them. But all of these problems are put in perspective when Capitol Pictures' star actor goes missing.
Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is leading the cast of a big budget epic called 'Hail, Caesar!', playing a sceptical Roman general who's converted to Christianity after bumping into Jesus. A crucial scene is about to filmed when Whitlock disappears off the set: he gets about a bit, so Eddie at first assumes the actor has hit the sauce and is holed up with one of his mistresses.
In fact Baird has been drugged by an extra and abducted by a mysterious cabal that sends a curt note to Eddie asking for a $100,000 ransom, and meanwhile two hawkish gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton) are starting to sniff about.
Hail, Caesar! should be a lot of fun, but is essentially a collection of nicely written scenes held together by nothing. The film lacks a focus, and also a consistent tone. Eddie Mannix was a real man, and a far less perfect one than this version, who's been cleaned up in order to distinguish him from his sinful charges. But Brolin's Eddie is a surly and two-dimensional problem-solver who's impossible to get to know, and no one else is on-screen long enough to win our affection.
Baird Whitlock is an airhead, and Mr Clooney does his best with what he's given, drawing real humour from a scene in which Whitlock's Roman general must looked into the face of the Christ and seem impressed. Scarlett Johansson is great fun as DeeAnna Moran, the swimming actress who looks like a goddess but is brassy as hell and has a Brooklyn accent you could slice cheese with.
But we don't get enough of her, nor of Ralph Fiennes' delightfully priggish director Laurence Laurentz. In the film's best scene, Laurentz's spirits plummet as he attempts to guide the hopeless Hobie Doyle through a seduction scene. It's a glorious moment in a film that's merely a collection of them, and never succeeds in becoming anything more coherent, or substantial.
Hail, Caesar! (15A, 106mins)