Hail, Caesar! has been marketed as a zippy farce. It is not. Coen Brothers devotees might expect a cutting, surreal black comedy. It is not that either. Truth is, I don't know what Hail, Caesar! is, though I can tell you what it isn't: very good.
The film is set in 1951 Hollywood at the fictional Capitol Pictures. The plot – the MacGuffin, really – has the star (George Clooney) of Capitol's latest biblical epic being kidnapped by Communist screenwriters. But Hail, Caesar! is really a slice of life, documenting 24 hours – excuse me, 28 hours – in the life of studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), for whom paying a $100,000 ransom is just one of the many nutty tasks he has to contend with on a daily basis.
Few filmmakers are as cynical as Joel and Ethan Coen, and it seems impossible for anyone to make a movie about Hollywood without being cynical, but Hail, Caesar! is perversely slight. Which isn't wrong, in and of itself. But this lighter touch comes with a weird lack of energy. Scenes go on and on with no purpose. The dialogue lacks bite. A sprawling cast of famous and not-so-famous faces – most of whom only get a few minutes of screen time – is game, yet the whole thing seems cobbled together.
The film does shine in its many scenes that replicate '50s movies, from a dazzling Busby Berkeley-style swimming routine (with Scarlett Johansson as an Esther Williams type) to a nicely choreographed Gene Kelly-ish musical (Channing Tatum tap-dancing as well as he can). In fact, I got the impression that the Coens only made Hail, Caesar! to see how well they could mimic these old pictures. The answer is very well indeed – though one misses the pure unadulterated talent of the real Esther Williams and Gene Kelly, since in 2016 we just assume that digital trickery fills in the gaps that today's actors can't.
Whereas their first showbiz satire Barton Fink turned 1941 Hollywood into a Kafkaesque nightmare, Hail, Caesar! depicts 1951 Hollywood as a harmless if scandal-tinged dream factory filled with well-meaning nincompoops. It's a love letter to the industry – and if you're skeptical that the Coen Brothers can pull off a love letter, you're not wrong. It seems that only when they're at their most brutal are these filmmakers really true to themselves. As a result, Hail, Caesar! feels disingenuous. Perhaps it was meant to be filler after the bittersweet and brilliant Inside Llewyn Davis. Perhaps it's just a test to see which of the many stars in the film the directors want to work with again. Perhaps they just have a soft spot for corny '50s movies. Or perhaps, as is often the case with the Coen Brothers, the joke is on us.