The 17th feature written and directed by the brothers Coen, Hail, Caesar! acts as a placeholder between better films before and better films to come, a footnote in their impressive oeuvre.
The film stars Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, a “fixer” for Capitol Studios during the mid-century golden age of cinema, a bygone time of Roman epics, Gene Kelly dance pictures, rodeo westerns and synchronized swimming flicks. Mannix is the gumshoe who wasn’t, a penitent man who loves his job though it leads him to smoking, which he’s trying to quit. When Baird Whitlock (Clooney), the star of his studio’s biggest picture, is kidnapped for ransom, it’s up to Mannix to solve the case with minimal media involvement and studio delay. On top of that, he has to sort out the scandal of a starlet’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy and smooth over the awkward transition of a Western star to the role of leading man in a petticoat drama. Throw in the looming specter of Communism and an overwhelming cast of cameos and you have just enough ingredients to weigh down this seemingly fluffy comedy.
IMDB categorizes Hail, Caesar! as a mystery comedy, and while there are elements of both, there aren’t enough of either. Rather, the film plays as a loosely-tied-together series of vignettes—executed spectacularly in Coen Brothers fashion with Roger Deakins behind the camera—with no real purpose in Mannix’s “a day in the life” story. It’s as if Joel and Ethan were compelled to make a movie in the ’50s Hollywood style but knew that concept couldn’t sustain an entire feature these days. Hail, Caesar! is their compromise.
It’s not all disappointment and unmet expectations, however. While Clooney lumbers through the picture looking like a giant, Roman Oompa Loompa, Alden Ehrenreich steals the show as Hobie Doyle, the Western virtuoso who can’t act. His scenes provide the most outright comedic moments in the entire film and are a welcome refreshment from the otherwise rambling narrative, which involves narration by Michael Gambon, Tilda Swinton as twin reporters, and brief, nearly line-free roles for Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill and Frances McDormand.
The Coen Brothers’ taste is too good for their missteps to be anything more than forgettable and forgivable, and that’s exactly where Hail, Caesar! falls, a few moments of brilliance made lesser by their grouping.