The so-called Golden Age of Hollywood gets the Coen Bros. treatment with amusingly all-over-the-place trifle "Hail, Caesar!" Writer-directors Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (2013's "Inside Llewyn Davis
") aren't aiming for the lazy ol' moon with this particular project, but something lighter and more jocular as studio "fixer" Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) races across backlots trying to solve the quandaries of his roster of filmmakers and movie stars. Does it amount to much more than a hill of beans? Not really. At this point, one expects the Coens to aim a little higher and dig a little deeper. Nevertheless, it's nice to be reminded how willing they are to still have fun.
Eddie Mannix is Capitol Pictures' resident one-stop-shop problem-solver. He heads to church every day, confessing middling sins like his inability to quit smoking for his wife (Alison Pill), but the rest of the time he is kept busy moving from one studio set and screening room to the next as he keeps tabs on the upcoming prestige releases and tries to paint a rosy public relations picture. There's water-dancing actress DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), who has recently found out she is pregnant butgasp!isn't married. There's Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), the professionally green western star plucked from Podunk America who gets in over his head trying to act in a serious drama directed by the increasingly flustered Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). There are competing twin celeb columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton in a dual role), forever sniffing around for a story. And, perhaps most trying of all, there is veteran matinee idol Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who has been kidnapped seemingly off the set of his religious swords-and-sandals epic "Hail, Caesar!" and is currently being held for a $100,000 ransom.
"Hail, Caesar!" is a blessed blur of movie-style artifice and silly behind-the-scenes exposé of 1950s La La Land. Writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen give their film an episodic narrative tempo (think 2014's "Inherent Vice
," only fluffier), many of the characters popping up for only a scene or two as Eddie attempts to sort out their troubles and then moves on. The more central throughlineBaird's oddball abduction by a gang of jovial, well-spoken suits who have whisked him away to a seaside Malibu mansionhas all the tension of a walk through the front yard to pick up the morning paper. The motive behind this kinda-sorta extortion plot proves to be a MacGuffin, while Baird's takeaway lesson involving the studio system and capitalism is more punchline than hard-hitting revelation.
What "Hail, Caesar!" leaves us with, then, is a buoyant 106-minute romp, dreamily photographed by Roger Deakins (2015's "Sicario") and indelibly performed by a glitzy ensemble. Josh Brolin (2015's "Everest
") is the straight man as Eddie Mannix, trying to do his job but sometimes letting his slap-happy hand get the best of him. George Clooney (2015's "Tomorrowland
") is all wide eyes and little brains as Baird Whitlock, who doesn't even immediately realize he has been kidnapped. Alden Ehrenreich (2013's "Blue Jasmine") is a hoot as hopelessly bad actor Hobie Doyle; a scene where Ralph Fiennes' (2015's "Spectre
") harried director Laurence Laurentz desperately tries to teach him how to naturally deliver a solitary line in front of the camera is a comic highlight. Tilda Swinton (2015's "Trainwreck
") is doubly delicious as gossip journalists Thora and Thessaly Thacker, always ready to uncover their next scoop. Frances McDormand (2012's "Promised Land
") disappointingly only has one scene, but she is nothing less than memorable as chain-smoking film editor C.C. Calhoun, learning the hard way not to wear long scarves as she manually cuts her pictures. Other participants, like Scarlett Johansson (2014's "Lucy
"), Alison Pill (2015's "Cooties
") and Jonah Hill (2013's "The Wolf of Wall Street
"), are severely underused.
"Hail, Caesar!" is certainly enjoyable from moment to moment, but makes one wish it was more focused and fleshed out on the whole. As is, most of the characters never move beyond two-dimensional archetypes and the story's dramatic substance is, shall we say, missing in action. As a frothy glimpse into the milieu of old-school Hollywood filmmaking, there are nonetheless pleasures to be had. Tap-dancing musical number "No Dames," led by fleet-footed showman Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), recalls the naiveté and magic of cinema's past. Eddie's interactions with everyone he crosses paths with are well-timed and edited for maximum amusement. A late set-piece involving a nighttime boat ride and a submarine is gloriously surreal. If the Coens have anything particularly meaningful to say with "Hail, Caesar!" it has gotten lost in translation. In its own off-the-wall manner, however, this is an original, unapologetically larkish escapade.