Hail, Caesar! ★★★½

[Prep for seeing Hail, Caesar! by revisiting my dialogue with Matt Zoller Seitz about the theology of the Coen Brothers.]

A powerful man sitting behind a desk? Check.

A suitcase full of money? Check.

A night drive on a dark and winding road? Check.

High-speed banter à la Preston Sturges? You betcha.

Yes indeed — Hail Caesar! is a movie by Joel and Ethan Coen. It has all of the defining characteristics.

In fact, it’s more like a Coen Brothers festival. As we follow Edward Mannix, the Catholic (and thus conscience-burdened) Capitol Pictures production”fixer” who is the focus of the film, through his daily routines — keeping feature films on schedule, on budget, and under control — we get a grand tour of the spectacularly realized movie sets, the genre conventions, and political paranoia of the 1950s.

And each soundstage comes with its own cast and crew, its own set of troubles and triumphs:

- the parlor-room cocktail drama Merrily We Danced, where director Laurence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes) struggles to un-drawl his Texan lead actor, a dopey Hollywood heartthrob named Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich);

- an Esther Williams-style “aquamusical” in which the main mermaid is played by a snarling and scandal-prone starlet (Scarlett Johansson);

- a goofy Western with its standard-issue comic-relief drunkard;

- a South Pacific-style musical, in which dame-deprived sailors are turned loose in a song-and-dance number frenzied in its footwork as it is flagrant in its euphemisms (I’ve now lost any remaining misgivings I had about Channing Tatum’s movie star status — he’s sensational);

- and, best of all, the titular Ben-Hur-style “Tale of the Christ,” starring a sort of Charlton Heston/Clark Gable mash-up named Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, adding another memorable idiot to his impressive Coen Brothers collection).

These multiple personalities are the film’s greatest achievement and its biggest problem at the same time: While Hail, Caesar! is never less than entertaining, the movie’s constant mode-changing — each environment introducing new characters and backdrops and styles — results in a film that just doesn’t hold together. This is one of those rare occasions where the Coens’ aesthetics upstage their writing and unbalance their momentum.

[Read the full review at Looking Closer.]

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