The Coen Brothers make very funny movies and are great kidders but their films are generally subversive. By this I mean on the surface desperate characters are trying to get away with murder or commit a robbery or sell a state secret but there are always undercurrents ripe with wit and dark humor.
Their films aren’t necessarily comedies yet they’re often funny as hell!
Where the brothers sometimes go wrong, which fortunately is not frequently, is when they try to be funny, when they try to make an actual comedy instead of a movie about a murder or a blackmail scheme or a satchel full of money.
I’m thinking of movies such as “Burn After Reading” or “The Ladykillers” and now their latest film, “Hail, Caesar!” This comedy about 1950s-era Hollywood spins off in many directions but goes absolutely nowhere.
The brothers, Ethan and Joel, who of course write and direct their films, pretty much covered all this and with much greater felicity to period Hollywood and much stronger satire in their 1991 film “Barton Fink.”
More to the point though, in trying to be funny instead of letting their nicely warped instincts loose on a drama or thriller, they spin their wheels by calling so much attention to every stab at humor.
Moments here and there bristle with Coen Bros. wit. These could easily be included in any tribute reel to their impressive body of work sometime in the distant future. But to get to those moments, one has to wade through pretty lifeless material.
Even the premise is a head-scratcher.
It’s about a man named Eddie Mannix, one of the more disreputable characters in Tinseltown history. Ostensibly, he was an executive at MGM Studios during its heyday. But what this ex-bouncer really was was a “fixer,” the guy who arrived at a tawdry scene involving MGM personnel before the cops showed up or got a bribe into the right hands to make certain situations go away.
Somehow the Coens got the idea to take this all-too-real person, turn him into a righteous, overly protective good guy and stick him in a totally fictional tale about a day in a life fixing all kinds of crises including a kidnapping at the fictional Capitol Pictures Studios with its fictional stars and a fictional press corps and police.
Well, I guess even this odd idea might work if it were funny. “Hail, Caesar!” is not. That perhaps owes to a second curious decision the Coens made.
Within his busy day, Eddie (a very good Josh Brolin) wanders through Capitol’s backlot and sound stages where he intrudes on film sets shooting all sorts of movies — a sword-and-sandal Bible epic, a singing cowboy movie, a drawing room melodrama and two musicals, one in a bar and the other an Esther Williams-like water ballet.
“Hail, Caesar!” grinds to a halt with each intrusion for the Coens to execute a pastiche of film genres circa 1950. Each sequence — especially a Gene Kelly-like sailors dance performed by Channing Tatum and company (with a not-so-subtle gay subtext) — is quite fine yet not really connected to the movie you came to see. That movie meanwhile has come to a virtual standstill.
The key plot development, which gets lost for long stretches however, concerns the mysterious disappearance of the studio’s biggest star, George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock, right in the middle of production on the studio’s Story of Christ where he plays a Roman military commander.
Curiously the Coens continue to see Clooney’s screen persona in ways no one else does. Following his starring roles in their “O Brother, Where Are Thou?” (2000) and “Intolerable Cruelty” (2003), they continue to cast him, as they themselves admit, as a “numbskull.”
Actors as thick as wooden planks, tough-talking actresses, directors filled with self-importance and imperious gossip columnists are par for the course in this satire.But aren’t such caricatures even more antiquated than ’50 movie genres?
Eddie’s headaches during this 24-hour period include an actress (Scarlet Johansson) suddenly pregnant, a singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich, also very good) transitioning to romantic lead, a swish director (Ralph Fiennes) still in the closet, vicious twin-sister columnists (Tilda Swinton as both) and a studio legal eagle (Jonah Hill, who’s barely in the movie).
An amusing scene where local leaders of four religious faiths meet with Eddie to weigh in on possible negative reactions to the studio’s Christ story gives all the best lines to the rabbi — well, the Coens are going to do that, aren’t they? — while Eddie keeps interrupting his day to take deadly dull meetings with a Lockheed Corp. recruiter who wants to sign him to a long contract.
No plot thread leads anywhere worth going. Even the kidnapping gets tossed away as unworthy of further development other than lengthy dialogue sessions between Whitlock and a bunch of communist screenwriters that the Coens apparently see as a hilarious depiction of political pomposity.
So let’s not hail this particular Caesar but chalk it up to an off day for the Coens as well as Eddie Mannix.
Opens: February 5, 2016 (Universal Pictures)
Production companies: Universal Pictures presents a Working Title production
Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Francis McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Veronica Osorio
Directors/screenwriters: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fullner, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Executive producer: Robert Graf
Director of photography: Roger Deakins
Production designer: Jess Gonchor
Music: Carter Burwell
Costume designer: Mary Zophres
Editor: Roderick Jaynes
PG-13 rating, 107 minutes