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‘Hail, Caesar!’ a smart but unsatisfying sendup of 1950s Hollywood

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(Universal Pictures)

(Universal Pictures)

The Coen brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” provides a wonderfully quirky comedic take on the golden age of Hollywood but it lacks a cohesive structure to keep itself afloat.

The majority of the film lives up to the hype. The set design is excellent. The cast delivers all around solid performances. And the script is full of humor and wit. “Hail, Caesar!” fires on all cylinders but it sometimes feels directed solely for the amusement of the Coen brothers themselves and those who are aware of the nuance and references to the era of films that they aim to portray.

The film’s plot revolves around a missing Hollywood star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who is captured by a group of communist screenwriters who refer to themselves as “The Future.” Eddie Mannix, a Capitol Pictures studio executive marvelously played by Josh Brolin, must find Baird in time to finish shooting one of the studio’s most prestigious films: the titular “Hail, Caesar!”

However, the plot isn’t what gives it shape. Instead, the film hinges upon its characters, especially on Mannix and his navigation through the trials and tribulations of keeping a Hollywood studio running.

Clooney does an excellent job of playing a blissfully oblivious movie star. Scarlett Johansson brings a tangible star presence as an aquatic actress. Channing Tatum continues to show off his thespian prowess – he plays the emphatic lead of Capitol Picture’s tap dancing sailor musical, a number from which makes for one of the film’s most notable sequences.

Then there’s Alden Ehrenreich – a young, fairly unknown actor who delivers a hilariously superb performance as Hobie Doyle, a country-western star who can’t say much more than “yeehaw.” He is thrown into a drama with British director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes, who seems to have found his stride in comedy after starring in Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel” back in 2014). In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Doyle and Laurence haggle over Doyle’s lines and his inability to utter a “mirthless chuckle.”

There are other individual moments that are hilarious. Waking up sprawled out in a lawn chair after being captured, Baird wanders up the stairs of his captors’ headquarters to find a maid repeatedly running a vacuum into a wall. Barely acknowledging his presence, she glances up at him and says, “You’re one of the movie guys?” In another sidesplitting scene, Hobie Doyle casually performs a graceful backflip onto a running steed while shooting at his attackers on the set of one of his western projects.

As per usual with the Coen brothers, there is more going on in the film aside from the brilliant comedic elements. “Hail, Caesar!” comments on the entertainment industry, faith and art in the 1950s, all with a light comedic touch. In several scenes, a communist “study group” engages in hilarious philosophical debates, complaining about how the movie studios are profiting off their work more than they are. None of the commentary here is intended to be heavy-handed. It is homage to the Hollywood of yore, filled to the brim with wit and humor.

As I appreciated the characters, the film left me wanting more. If one of the main players is kidnapped, and their kidnapping is a main plot point, then the movie should give it more focus. I understand that “Hail, Caesar!” is supposed to be light and comedic, but I was slightly disappointed when the tension behind Baird’s kidnapping dissipated so quickly and the film’s central mystery dissolved.

There’s ultimately too much going on at once in “Hail, Caesar!” for a viewer to appreciate the film in its entirety. It has many brilliant moments, but they don’t quite come together. More attention to plot would have allowed the film to maintain its comic touch and feel a little less scattered.  Despite featuring so much solid material, the film still left me wanting more.

Then again, maybe the Coen brothers simply didn’t want to give any more.

Matthew Armstrong can be reached at [email protected].

1 Comment

One Response to “‘Hail, Caesar!’ a smart but unsatisfying sendup of 1950s Hollywood”

  1. Nate on February 18th, 2016 12:18 pm

    This movie was a complete joy from beginning to end.

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