A sardonic love letter to Hollywood and the artificial fantasies upon which it thrives, “Hail, Caesar!” finds Joel and Ethan Coen paying tribute to the classic movies they adore, all while casting those dream-factory productions — as well as the political, personal and religious narratives that surround them — as simultaneously reassuring, uplifting and phony. Working in a madcap vein most closely aligned with that of “The Hudsucker Proxy” and “Burn After Reading,” the Coens’ latest suffers from a narrative that, plot-wise, is so all over the place, it often feels like its operating on pure adrenalized instinct rather than following a carefully laid-out plan. Such impressions, however, are a byproduct of the frenzied pace at which this tale proceeds, as beneath the film’s zippy tongue-in-cheek farce lurks a more incisive, self-conscious portrait of the industry as the producer of artful commodities which, at their finest, operate as make-believe entertainments with the power to thrill, amuse and inspire.
Identifying the method behind the Coens’ madness takes some work, as the film moves at such a rat-a-tat-tat screwball speed that following along often feels like clinging for dear life to the side of a speeding train. The primary plot in “Hail, Caesar!” involves the efforts of 1950s Capitol Pictures Studio bigwig Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) to locate the whereabouts of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a marquee star who, while in the process of completing work on the biblical epic “Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ” — about a Roman general who sees the light after encountering Jesus — is mysteriously kidnapped. The perpetrators of this crime, it’s soon revealed, are Communist screenwriters intent on holding Baird for a $100,000 ransom. With that loot, these radical intellectuals plan to fund the Soviet-sponsored cause of toppling American capitalism, which, they preach to Baird at a posh Malibu pad that speaks to their hypocrisy, is epitomized by Hollywood’s exploitative studio system.
While these socialist scribes promote their proletariats-unite! story to Baird — a dim-bulb who easily eats up their facts and figures as veritable gospel — Eddie works on spinning, maintaining, and managing his own basketful of yarns. There’s the new relationship between cowpoke heartthrob Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) and Carmen Miranda-style actress Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio), which — like a possible third marriage for starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) — has been concocted by the studio. There’s DeeAnna’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, which necessitates a counterfeit adoption sham perpetrated with assistance of legal ace Joe (Jonah Hill). There’s also the juicy gossip items sought by competing twin-sister journalists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton), which Eddie is compelled to massage to his (and his employers’) benefit. And then there’s the issue of God’s true nature, which is debated, to inconclusive ends, by a diverse group of religious leaders whose counsel Eddie seeks in order to make the portrayal of Jesus in “Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ” as accurate as possible.
The Coens juggle these strands with varying degrees of success, as some are so cursorily handled that, even when they fit snugly into the directors’ portrait of ubiquitous myth-making, they often fail to register as anything more than fleeting diversions. Better are those sequences in which the directors celebrate the majesty of Hollywood’s glitzy, glamorous extravaganzas, from an Esther Williams-style water-ballet sequence featuring DeeAnna as a mermaid, to a Channing Tatum-as-a-sailor tap-dance number in a bar. In both those instances, the Coens deftly manage to have it both ways, playing their homage-y centerpieces straight in order to honor old-school filmmaking, and then punctuating them with artifice-destroying punchlines: Johansson ripping off her tail and speaking in a brassy manner about her messy romantic life; Tatum’s female-lamenting song-and-dance routine turning into a homoeroticized spectacle. Similarly, Roger Deakins’ imagery straddles the line between reverence and ridicule, imagining the studio back lot as an imposing wonderland of towering domes and cavernous alleyways, and then routinely bursting movie-magic bubbles by exposing the production machinery that creates the cinema’s fanciful cinematographic deceptions.
Ultimately, “Hail, Caesar!” moves so furiously between its disparate characters’ plights that even its funniest moments — especially a prolonged attempt by an oh-so-serious director (Ralph Fiennes) to get Hobie to drop his southern drawl for a 1920s drawing-room drama — elicit only a mild chuckle before the film careens to another point of interest. Tethering together this wacko maelstrom is Eddie, who’s tasked with running this “circus” even as he contemplates a cushy job offer from Lockheed Martin, and whom Brolin embodies as a no-nonsense fixer determined to engineer and prop up various fictions — taking place both in front of, and behind, the camera — by hook or by crook. Like everyone else involved, he’s more of a cartoon than a fully realized character, often lost amidst the Coens’ many vignettes positing stories as comforting (and, oftentimes, revelatory) lies. Yet in bookending trips to church confession, Eddie attains a measure of depth by expressing a heartfelt desire for personal truth — and, in a final twist that seemingly articulates the Coens’ own beliefs, his ultimate epiphany involves realizing that true contentment comes from the one thing (artificial or not) that makes him genuinely happy: the movies. [B-]