Why would anyone get into the heartless, heartbreaking movie business? It’s never a good bet, but there must be times when all the agony pays off—when, for instance, you get to stage a water ballet featuring Scarlett Johansson in a shapely, spangly mermaid’s costume, or set a scowling George Clooney stomping around in a Roman mini-tunix and gladiator sandals, or mount a buoyant song-and-dance number with Channing Tatum as a sailor getting ready to ship out, tippety-tapping on tabletops even as he frets about the lack of dames at sea. Joel and Ethan Coen have been in the game long enough to indulge in those kinds of fanciful curlicues, and they pack a lot of them into Hail, Caesar! Josh Brolin stars as a fifties-era Hollywood fixer named Eddie Mannix, and he’s a busy guy: His duties include, but are not limited to, rescuing an arrogant, drunken actor (Clooney) from a bunch of Communist kidnapers and dreaming up clever ways to cover up swimming starlet Johansson’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
There’s a lot going on in Hail, Caesar! and camera-bulb flashes of brilliance pop here and there. The Coens are in their woolly mode, riffing on their fondness for tall tales and outlandish, larger-than-life figures: They’ve made some of their finest, most enjoyable movies—like The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?—while chasing this ball-of-yarn muse. But in Hail, Caesar! their touch isn’t light enough. They hit every beat as if it were a gong, when what they really need is the tremor of a drumstick grazing the edge of a cymbal. It’s as if the Coens want to give themselves over to all-out ridiculousness and simply can’t manage: In their hearts, they’re cerebral guys, and they never let us forget it. The super-secret lefty cabal that holds Clooney’s superstar hostage is made up of disillusioned Hollywood screenwriters who aim to secretly implant their ideological messages in movie scripts. That’s exactly what the House Un-American Activities Committee, in real life, accused certain screenwriters of doing, but in the Coens’ hands the gag feels arch and overworked. They fail even more miserably when they go for slapstick laughs: In a throwaway scene, Frances McDormand plays a film editor who nearly chokes to death when her trailing scarf is caught in the gears of a Moviola. She’s freed just in time—it’s the joke that’s left gasping for breath.
But the moments of glory from Hail, Caesar! would make one hell of a highlights reel. Ralph Fiennes saunters onto the scene as a musty has-been director trying to wrangle a charmingly inept cowboy star—played by relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich—into a stiff costume drama. Fiennes boils over, trying to coach the poor kid on how to enunciate the impossible phrase “Would that it were”—the duo transform the exchange into a Dada musical duet. Tilda Swinton appears in a dual role, playing rival gossip columnists who also happen to be sisters: One Swinton swans in with a carnival-striped mini hat perched ludicrously, and marvelously, atop her coiffure, an instance of costume design (by Coens regular Mary Zophres) as sight gag. The Coens clearly wanted to fill Hail, Caesar! with the wonderful trifles contemporary movies no longer have a place for: Silly hats on women, Esther Williams-style water extravaganzas, dancing sailors. Their love for these things is one of their most charming and admirable traits. Hail, Caesar! doesn’t completely hang together. But Johansson in a mermaid’s tail? Really, why else make movies—or go to them?