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Hail, Caesar!: Song and Dance, What More Do You Want?

The Coen brothers have made their most entertaining movie in years—and also their most impenetrable.

Universal Pictures

Hail, Caesar! is perhaps the most jagged, disjointed, and ramshackle of all the Coen brothers’ movies, and almost certainly the one your friends and family who are not movie nerds will be most baffled by. It is also, from start to finish, one of the funniest films the Coens have ever made. If you have even the slightest interest in Hollywood history and the studio system of the 1950s, you will have such a blast you won’t care that none of it particularly holds together. It’s simultaneously the Coens’ most accessible movie in years and their most impenetrable. You’ll either feel like it was made specifically for you, or for some alien race you will never meet or understand. Hail Caesar! is pure Coenism, for better or worse.

The film follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood “fixer” in charge of making sure all the films of Capitol Studios, a Paramount-esque old-time movie studio, run smoothly and without scandal. He mollifies the egos of his megastars, covers up their scandals, fends off nosy newspaper gossip reporters who are also twins (played confusingly and amusingly, by Tilda Swinton), and generally makes sure the trains run on time. He’s tortured by some unnamed guilt, but is otherwise unflappable, even when his biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, in crazy-eye-popping mug mode—not always my favorite channel on the Clooney dial), is kidnapped by a group of communists who call themselves The Future. Mannix works to get Whitlock back while also dealing with a pregnant starlet (Scarlett Johannsen), a dashing tap dancer (Channing Tatum), and, most notably, a cowpoke star (Alden Ehrenreich) trying to make the transition into “prestige pictures.” All of these characters end up colliding with each other in ways that don’t make a lot of sense and aren’t particularly compelling, not that it matters much anyway. The Coens make occasional nods at the spiritual confusion and despair of Inside Llewyn Davis and A Serious Man—Mannix is considering working for Lockheed, a more “serious” business, and he spends much of the movie confessing to his priest—but then they mostly drop it. They’re too busy having fun.

And they sure are having fun. Hail, Caesar! should be thought of less as a movie than as an assemblage of scenes that are going to make fantastic segments of the Coens’ lifetime-achievement award montages over the next 20 years. As a pure exercise in giddy sensation, the movie delivers, with scenes that will make your grin rise up over your ears. Whatever else they’re trying to do with this movie, they’re mostly just having a blast recreating old-time Hollywood scenes with their own spin, whether it’s a musical high-dive with full orchestra, a “classy” drama that features a beleaguered director (Ralph Fiennes; everyone is in this movie) desperately trying to draw non-garbled line readings from his cowboy star, or a sand-and-sandals epic that ends up being all about Jesus. (A scene where Mannix consults with four religious figures to make sure the movie is appropriately kosher is a riot.) But the big set piece, the one that brings the movie to a total stop, is an inspired tap-dance sequence in which Channing Tatum leads a group of sailors through “No Dames.” On one level, it’s a cheesy and endearing sendup of scenes from the time, divorced from whatever camp subtext. But more than that, it’s just a rip-roaring, lose-your-mind sequence—a true Coens classic. It’s the best scene in the movie, and one you’ll still be humming when you leave the theater.

That scene is completely independent of, and irrelevant to, the rest of Hail, Caesar!, which is both the movie’s virtue and its cross to bear. You may find yourself impatient with some of the Coens’ digressions, and frustrated by their total disinterest in wrapping up any of the plot threads, and you’ll be right. The Coens are too talented not to make a trifle like this interesting, but it is nonetheless a trifle, which brings out some of their worst tendencies; when the Coens are off, there’s a certain muted contempt that comes across. Their fooling-around, when unchecked, can begin to feel like dismissiveness. If you find yourself caring about Baird Whitlock or what happens to him, or whether the good-hearted cowboy singer can figure out how to say his lines right, the joke is on you. At their best, the Coens keep you at a distance and pull you tight. Here, you’re constantly on the outside looking in.

Still, it’s quite the show to take in. Tatum is a hoot, and Brolin clearly is having the time of his life. (One thing is clear: Actors love being in Coen brothers movies.) But the real star of the show is Ehrenreich, who can play an affable, empty-headed dope and still display the star power that Mannix and the rest of the studio obviously see in him. (I could watch him lasso spaghetti for hours.) Hail Caesar! is sort of in my strike zone, a Barton Fink-but-goofy romp. This is a movie for Coen brothers fans who are willing, even eager, to sit and watch them doodle for a couple of hours. If that sounds like your bliss, here’s your movie. But while I’m glad they’re getting their ya-yas out a little bit, I’ll be ready for them to get back to being serious down the line. 

Grade: B

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film, Grierson & Leitch. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site