A broader style of comedy isn't exactly Joel and Ethan Coen's wheelhouse. The Big Lebowski is beyond beloved and Raising Arizona is a gem, but The Hudsucker Proxy is divisive and nobody really liked Intolerable Cruelty or The Ladykillers. Their strengths lie in mixing comedy and drama (A Serious Man) or dragging you into an unexpectedly dark hole (Burn After Reading).
So when you see the trailer for Hail, Caesar!, with Scarlett Johansson rising from the water in a mermaid costume and George Clooney mugging in a centurion outfit, you can't be blamed for cringing a little. It's laugh-inducing, I suppose, but not in the way you'd like to see the Coen brothers operate.
Unfortunately, you wouldn't rank the final product amongst their best work. But fortunately, there's a lot of funny here. It doesn't hold together as a 'movie,' more a series of vignettes stitched together, but everyone involved seems to understand exactly what they're there for. In a sendup of old-timey Hollywood, that's as important as it gets.
Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, a studio fixer who bounces from set to set ensuring that his actors and actresses are in line and their scandals are kept quiet. His biggest problems include Clooney as clueless star (and Communist hostage) Baird Whitlock, Johansson as the pregnant-and-unwed DeeAnna Moran, and Alden Ehrenreich as on-the-rise singing cowboy Hobie Doyle. Ehrenreich, in particular, steals the show; he's a whiz with a lasso and embodies the Western stereotype with a welcome emphasis on charm over bumbling.
The Coens spend a lot of time and energy recreating the look and feel of 1950s Hollywood films (complete with an alternatingly peppy, mysterious, and booming score from Carter Burwell), but the results are hit-or-miss. A mermaid movie starring Moran gets what feels like 10 minutes of synchronized swimming as an introduction; it pops off the screen (another home run from longtime Coen cinematographer Roger Deakins) but fizzles as it drags on, and on, and on. The joke is its lengthy runtime, sure, but there’s a limit to how much we can chuckle along.
Contrast that with Channing Tatum’s introduction, however; he plays song-and-dance-man Burt Gurney and tap dances with his Navy buddies through a bar to the insanely catchy “No Dames.” It’s an early frontrunner for “best scene of 2016,” if not “best scene ever,” and it’s worth every second of the intense effort they must have expended to make it happen.
This is also maybe the best collection of supporting actors and unexpected faces the Coens have ever assembled, which is saying something. First off, there’s a Highlander reunion (although never in the same scene) for Christopher Lambert and Clancy Brown. Wayne Knight gets an extended pop-in as a devious extra (“Recline with the lyre”) and Fred Melamed returns from killing it in A Serious Man to portray a beefy Communist. You’ve got Alex Karpovsky from Girls, Jon Daly from Kroll Show, and a very brief appearance from the great Dolph Lundgren. For all its other flaws, the casting is flawless.
Story-wise, there’s not much of a wrap-up; Mannix resolves his internal conflict, Moran’s prenatal issues are handled off-screen, and Doyle more or less disappears when his work is complete. But the final scene, where Whitlock brings the crew to tears with a heartfelt performance before inadvertently betraying the hollowness of it all, perfectly encapsulates what the Coens are going for. It’s a bit on the nose, sure, but so was Hollywood in the 1950s. There wasn’t a lot of interest in nuance, and when Hail, Caesar! works it hits that nail on the head with a vengeance.