Hail, Caesar! (To be simply referred to as Hail Caesar during the rest of the review) is basically Burn After Reading in Hollywood, and just like Burn After Reading, it's a series of great scenes in search of a movie. My love for the Coen Brothers is undeniable, but I've yet to fully appreciate their occasional foray into wisecracking Preston Sturges, old Hollywood send-offs. To me, they always suffer from the same problem: A boundless amount of creativity and excellent pacing when it comes to individual scenes and over-the-top character traits, with plot and structure that feels more like an afterthought.
Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading firmly fit into this mold, with Raising Arizona, as entertaining as it may be, showing signs of the same issues. The only "Coens do Sturges" film I truly enjoy as a whole is O Brother, Where Art Thou, simply because the episodic approach of their Odyssey meets Bluegrass flick fits the structure of a Greek tragedy. And no, I don't count The Big Lebowski, easily one of the top 5 funniest films ever made, within the Coens' wisecracking slapstick projects. That's more like a Raymond Chandler parody.
Hail Caesar revolves around a long day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a professional Hollywood fixer working around the clock for a major studio in the 1950s, covering up potential scandals that might ruin the careers of movie stars who are on the studio's payroll. Thanks to the continual dumb actions of a bunch of entitled, careless, alcoholic, and childish stars, Mannix always has his hands full, and during the day Hail Caesar takes place in, he has to keep three major issues under control, one of which might destroy the studio if it's not handled perfectly.
First problem revolves around the studio's insistence of turning a simpleton western star named Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into a credible dramatic actor, so Mannix has to figure out a way to reshape Hobie's yokel image into one of a dashing leading man. The second issue is about DeeAnna Moran (Scarlety Johansson), an Esther Williams-type who's known for her synchronized swimming musicals. DeeAnne is pregnant, and Mannix has to figure out a way to sell her upcoming out of wedlock baby to the puritan 1950s audience.
But the biggest setback occurs when Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a dashing, charismatic, but fairly dim major star (Cough, Charlton Heston, cough) is kidnapped by a group of communists, who ask for a hundred thousand dollars of ransom money in order to help "the cause". The studio only has a couple of days left with Whitlock, and he still has to shoot the key scene in a "Ben Hur"-like Christian epic, so Mannix has no choice but to comply with the kidnappers' demands.
Mannix is a devout catholic who's guilt-ridden about smoking cigarettes, but takes pride in covering up the many moral transgressions of his clients, and Brolin finds enough of a balance between outer authoritarianism and inner fragility to carry the picture. It's not hard to imagine this guy as a broader offshoot of a similar character he portrayed in Inherent Vice. The rest of the cast basically fits into the Burn After Reading formula, where the Coens get various big stars to goof off and have fun within specific scenes, without much care for the cohesion of the overall film.
All of the Coens' slapstick comedies feel like they came up with 30 to 40 separate great scenes and decided to awkwardly fit them into a feature. It would be unfair if I denied the fact that Hail Caesar features three of the funniest scenes I'll see all year, one of which rivals any sequence in their masterpiece A Serious Man when it comes to extracting absurdist comedy out of the many inconsistencies within Abrahamic theology. The somewhat overlong scenes depicting films-within-the-film, poking fun of old Hollywood clichés, find a delicate Edgar Wright-type balance between parody and homage.
Unfortunately, the pieces don't come together to form a satisfying whole. There's a bit of an overarching theme that points out the absurdity of the studio trying to get their big star back from communists so he can shoot a monologue praising the undeniably socialist ideals of Jesus Christ, but it doesn't hold much water. Hail Caesar delivers the kind of breezy and absurdist fun that fans of the Coens' Sturges-style comedies can expect. Me, I'll wait for them to turn the dial a bit more to the dark side.