“Hail, Caesar,” released on Feb. 5, takes a pretty dim view of Tinseltown. This is hardly surprising; the Coen brothers, who directed it, have a well-documented contempt for Hollywood, expressed both in interviews and in previous efforts like “Barton Fink.”(1991) But modern Hollywood, widely seen as a cesspool of reckless hedonism and narcissistic entitlement, is now low-hanging fruit, and it is not in this film’s crosshairs. No, instead “Hail, Caesar” harkens back to the 1950s, when the film industry and those who labored away within it like a colony of ants could still make a plausible claim to innocence, or at the very least, naiveté.
Joel and Ethan Coen, in typically cynical fashion, unmask that claim as illusory pretty quickly — the stars are just as much of a handful, the directors just as pretentious and the gossip journalists just as prying. In other words, very little distinguishes this world from Hollywood as we know it. Very little, that is, and a whole lot. In the 1950s, the all-encompassing paranoia about Communism — codified in the Hollywood blacklist — had a chokehold on the industry, heavily policing the output of major studios, including the fictional Capitol Pictures, where the movie’s action unfolds. All the films you see in production throughout “Hail, Caesar” (and there are a lot of them) are either light on substance or otherwise implicitly promoting normative American values, such as heterosexuality and the Judeo-Christian tradition. But their primary imperative is diverting their audiences. It’s entertainment as an opiate of the masses.
Somewhat fittingly, then, a drugging sets the storyline into motion. Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the dopey star of the titular movie being produced by Capitol Pictures, swills from a drugged chalice on set, passes out and is abducted by a group of communists who call themselves “The Future.” The head of production for the studio, Eddie Mannix (an overly dour Josh Brolin), is tasked with finding him so they can wrap up the film. But he’s juggling a lot of other responsibilities. He has to clear a script with representatives of the major religions, which proves more difficult than it seems. He has to defuse a looming PR crisis involving one of his stars, DeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), who is unmarried and pregnant. He has to resolve artistic differences between a young crooner-cum-actor, Hobie Doyle (a pitch-perfect Alden Ehrenrich) and his flummoxed director, Laurence Laurentz (a criminally underutilized Ralph Fiennes). A pair of twin gossip reporters (both played by a marvelous Tilda Swinton) are hot on the scent of a story that he needs to squash. Meanwhile, the defense contractor Lockheed Martin is trying to poach him, promising him better pay and fewer headaches. Clearly, there is never a dull moment for this man.
Given all the rich elements in “Hail, Caesar” — a farcical, how-the-sausage-is-made look at the inner workings of the 1950s film industry, a heavy dose of Marxism and an exploration of religion that toes the line between cheeky and sincere — it’s a wonder it doesn’t succeed. Sure, the movie has its moments, like a fantastically shot tap-dancing scene featuring Channing Tatum as the Hollywood heartthrob Burt Gurney (it’s better than it sounds), but moments like these only augment our disappointment by the end. They’re little glimpses of potential in an overall disappointing package, now off-limits for better projects.
Ultimately, the film’s greatest transgression is that it fails to make us care. Plot threads are picked up then hastily resolved. Big reveals elicit more of a sigh than a gasp. The climax — or what should have been the climax — deflates into a plodding denouement. The Coens might have consciously been trying to play with these standard narrative conventions, but attempting creative subversion isn’t a license for lazy storytelling. And besides, there’s nothing more conventional than Brolin’s Mannix, a man whose fervent devotion to his work, moral rectitude and utter lack of quirks render him flat, two-dimensional. A couple times in “Hail, Caesar,” we see him visiting the confessional booth, seeking to be absolved of his sins. But as the camera zooms out from the Capitol Pictures studio for the final shot, we understand where his true allegiance lies. This may be the universe he presides over, but it’s also the altar at which he worships. Sometimes his faith will be rewarded, and other times, as with this movie, it will be tested.