Once branded as essentially sophomoric, Joel and Ethan Coen have, over the past decade, established their artistic and philosophical seriousness, creating their own, distinctive border world straddling farce and tragedy. But they’re still kind of sophomoric. Nothing turns them on as much as fooling around with what they’ve called “movie fodder” — tired genre archetypes plunked down in radically different contexts and given a fresh, antic spin. Their amalgamations can be feats of genius, like their stoner-gumshoe farrago The Big Lebowski. Or they can pretty much lie there, like much of their new, star-packed comedy, Hail, Caesar!, which is nothing but movie fodder.
Set in the 1950s, the film centers on a Hollywood studio called Capitol Pictures and its “fixer,” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who functions almost like a head of production. Mannix herds wayward actresses and dipsomaniacal actors, plugs casting holes, and tries to keep the whole multi-ring circus from dissolving into chaos. As he solves problems, the Coens serve up parodies of biblical epics, soft-shoe sailor musicals, water ballets, grade-B oaters, and drawing-room romances.
Two of the parodic set pieces are so brilliant that they can hold their own against what’s being parodied. Channing Tatum and a group of hoofing sailors do a full-blown production number set in a bar (and behind and on top of a bar) that made me wish the Coens would drop what passes for their story line and turn the film into a musical: They could teach Rob Marshall, Baz Luhrmann, and just about every living music-video director how to stage, shoot, and edit (judiciously) dance. The other is a kaleidoscopic marvel of a water ballet starring Scarlett Johansson as a mermaid (she’ll later complain about the tightness of her “fish ass”) that made me suddenly understand why that ridiculous subgenre once thrilled people to pieces. Wonderful, too, is the scene in which Ralph Fiennes as aristocratic director Laurence Laurentz (the name looms large) gently attempts to elicit a thoughtful line reading and “mirthless chuckle” from a staggeringly miscast cowboy star (Alden Ehrenreich) in a sophisticated love story. The gag falls under the “low-hanging fruit” category, but the Coens (and Fiennes and Ehrenreich) squeeze every bit of juice from it. I also loved Robert Picardo as a peevish rabbi who’s part of a multifaith panel convened to discuss the studio’s latest Christ epic.
With so many good — no, fabulous — elements, why does so much of Hail, Caesar! feel so overdeliberate? Because everything the Coens do is overdeliberate. “Overdeliberate” defines their comic temperament, the rhythm of their storytelling. When it fits their material, it’s gangbusters, but this milieu begs for a loose, scattershot tone, one in which every line isn’t archly parodic. A major subplot featuring a cabal of communist writers who kidnap a thick-witted leading man (George Clooney) and hold him hostage while indoctrinating him in the evils of capitalism is dead on the screen. And Clooney doesn’t rise to the occasion. He seems to like working with the Coens because they always cast him as a dumb guy, but his idea of playing dumb is to furrow his brow and either speak very slow or babble hysterically. Maybe the movie would be better if Clooney and Brolin had swapped roles. Good as he is, Brolin seems closed down, his eyes reduced to slits under his hat brim. He might have made the drunken leading man a volatile innocent, buoyed by his contact with Marxist economics, while Clooney might have found his comic voice as a well-dressed thug trying to use every drop of his political savvy to keep selfindulgent child-men and -women feel safe and loved.
Johansson has a good scene as the mouthy mermaid, but once you’ve registered that Tilda Swinton is playing twin rival gossip columnists, each of whom thinks the other cheapens the profession, there’s nothing to do but stare at her absurd Harlequin-esque plumes. Hail, Caesar! might play better on the small screen, where you can savor its fodder piece by piece. But the Coens might be too much like their main character, maintaining too much control and keeping their splendid zanies in line.
*A version of this article appears in the February 8, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.