‘Hail, Caesar!’ showcases Coen brothers at their peak
The Coen brothers (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) return to Hollywood with their latest film “Hail, Caesar!” The film follows studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, “Sicario”) through a day in the life in which he chases down a kidnapped lead, negotiates the marriage of a pregnant starlet and keeps the cameras rolling at Capital Pictures (the same studio from the brothers’ 1991 film “Barton Fink”). With the humor of “The Big Lebowski” and the anti-climatic aimlessness of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” this is Joel and Ethan operating at peak Coen.
No clear plot emerges until the studio’s mega star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, “The Descendants”), is kidnapped and held for ransom by a group of communist screenwriters. Spinning around this central plot are a series of overlapping, interwoven side stories used to illustrate the constant action of Hollywood and to cast Mannix as a point of sanity in the midst of pure chaos.
These side stories include a hilarious scene in which cowboy character actor Hobie Doyle (played charmingly by Alden Ehrenreich of “Blue Jasmine”) has been unfittingly cast as an urban socialite and is coached by his director, Laurence Laurenz (Ralph Fiennes, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”), through the lines “would that it were so simple.” It’s one of the funniest scenes of the movie and proves the staying power of a more developed joke over a slew of one-liners. Likewise, while trying to make sure his depiction of Jesus in the studio’s latest big budget epic “Hail, Caesar!” is respectful, Mannix sparks some hilarious banter between an Orthodox priest who is concerned about the realism of the chariots, a disinterested rabbi and a pastor who wants to discuss the metaphorical tangibility of Christ.
The humor is varied in “Hail, Caesar!” from pure goofiness (Tilda Swinton of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” plays twin rival tabloid journalists) to absurdist commentary on faith (Mannix’s priest tells him he confesses too much and sends him away). With an overwhelming pace and sometimes overdone humor, every moment of the film is an opportunity to make fun of a new part of the Hollywood machine. At the heart of much of that humor is, surprisingly, Channing Tatum (“22 Jump Street”). All grown up from the days of “Dear John,” Tatum shines as a tap-dancing communist who finishes a homoerotic dance number and then boards a submarine headed to the USSR. It’s hilariously absurd and proof of Tatum’s refined comedic abilities.
Relative newcomer Ehrenreich is absolutely wonderful as a singing cowboy-turned-Hollywood-big-shot. He brings an out-of-place, yet much needed, earnestness to the flashy, calculated world of Capital Pictures. A scene in which he twirls his spaghetti like a lasso, trying to wrangle his date’s fingers, is one of the only times the film allows itself to be nothing more than sweet — a much-needed break from the onslaught of satire and social commentary.
“Hail, Caesar!” is bursting at the seams with talent, so much so that powerhouse actors like Jonah Hill (“True Story”) and Frances McDormand (“Moonrise Kingdom”) are given one scene apiece. Everything about it is over the top, from the characters to the plot to the homoerotic tap dance number. And while it’s entertaining every step of the way, it sometimes feels like the Coens are trying to cram too much into an hour and 40 minutes. The film opens a hundred doors and can’t find the time to close them all.
“Hail, Caesar!” ends exactly where it begins, with the immediate crises taken care of and similar disasters looming on the horizon. The anticlimax manages to still be satisfying — a feat that few besides the Coens have mastered.