Just as Tarantino likes to do movies with bounty hunters and blood — the Coen brothers like to do movies about kidnapping (Fargo, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski) and Hollywood (Barton Fink). They like casting George Clooney as the dope (Intolerable Cruelty, O Brother, Burn After Reading).
Josh Brolin (who was great in the Coen’s No Country For Old Men) is okay in this, albeit one-dimensional, as Eddie Mannix. He’s a studio fixer in the early ‘50s. He not only spends his time fixing problems on the studio lot, but going to confession every day because he smokes cigarettes. Oh, and he meets up with a guy from Lockheed who is offering him a big contract in a less stressful job.
The first problem we see Mannix fix is with a starlet taking dirty photos (great line about it being a “French postcard situation”). The problems increasingly get bigger. There’s an Esther Williams character played nicely by Scarlett Johansson. She may dress like a mermaid but curses like a sailor). She’s a bit peeved the mermaid suit is too tight, and that’s because she’s pregnant, something that’s a problem for an unmarried woman in that time period. The way that situation is rectified is slightly amusing (it’s the one scene we see Jonah Hill in).
Each situation gives the Coen’s a chance to show genre pictures from that time period (although I’m guessing the one with Ralph Fiennes would’ve been more like a ‘30s picture, but that’s a smaller gripe).
The singing cowboy from a series of successful westerns, is being thrown into that Fiennes picture, and he’s clearly in over his head. We get a humorous scene with the director trying to get him to read his lines properly. Actor Alden Ehrenreich plays cowpoke Hobie Doyle and is brilliant, although he doesn’t have much chemistry with a Carman Miranda (Veronica Osorio) type he’s set up with.
The biggest problem Mannix has to fix is in the epic picture Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ. A few extras, working for communists (side note: what’s with all the communism in films these days?), drug and kidnap lead actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, who surprisingly, doesn’t really have the Caesar haircut, and he’s one of the few people that can actually pull off that look).
The nosy twin gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton), are easy enough for Mannix to deal with, and they don’t provide much comic relief. In fact, a lot of the jokes fall flat, or are executed poorly.
Easily the best scene in the movie involves Channing Tatum. You thought he could dance in Magic Mike, well…he learned tap dancing to do a South Pacific style number in a bar that will bring the house down. They sing about how they won’t see “many dames” while out to sea, but their dancing suggests that might not be a problem.
A rabbi steals the scene he’s in, when Mannix meets with religious leaders to have them read the script of Hail, Caesar! to make sure they have no major objections. Yet a few other Jewish characters (communist screenwriters played by Fisher Stevens, Patrick Fischler, David Krumholtz, and Fred Melamed) are stereotypical and done poorly (although that could have to do a bit with the fact that Trumbo portrayed those characters in a much more interesting fashion).
The period details are impeccable, and it helps that they use Coen regular cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Carter Burwell.
The problem is that this love letter to old Hollywood is a zany comedy that just isn’t all that funny. The Coen brothers do comedy best when they aren’t specifically trying to make a comedy — Fargo comes to mind. When they try to do a straight comedy, it doesn’t always work (Intolerable Cruelty and Ladykillers come to mind); although Raising Arizona and Burn After Reading are hysterical, so they are capable of doing it.
There wasn’t a big enough payoff at the end, so despite a number of good scenes, the movie just doesn’t come together the way it should.
A mere 2 stars out of 5.