2 stars (out of 4 stars)
George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Josh Brolin, Jonah Hill, Ralph Fiennes and Channing Tatum must really, really, really, really, really, really love working with writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen.
There’s no other explanation as to why this A-list ensemble would converge and waste their energies on this throwaway screwball comedy. What could have been a smart-yet-silly love letter to a bygone era is a farce without the laughs. The brothers’ sense of humor here is so arch that it might as well be set in St. Louis.
Instead we go to Hollywood circa the 1950s, back in the Golden Age of film. Harried Capitol Studios exec Eddie Mannix (Brolin) makes his living as a troubleshooter cleaning up his star clients’ messes. (Fun fact alert: Mannix was a real-life Hollywood fixer who died in the 1960s.) If that means this family man has to slap an actor across the face to get his way, fine. If he needs to feed gossip to a female newspaper columnist and then give contradictory statements to her twin sister … even better.
He’s earning his paycheck big time lately. On the set of a gladiator epic called Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, dimwitted leading man Baird Whitlock (Clooney) has just been kidnapped from his trailer. The ransom is $100,000. Meanwhile, a starlet who performs synchronized swimming in water ballets (Johansson, speaking in a grating New Yawk accent) just got knocked up. And a snooty British director (Fiennes) throws a hissy fit because he doesn’t like the slow-on-the-uptake style of one of his actors.
Essentially, this is a series of zany vignettes strung together with little payoff. Clooney ends up in a living room, where a group of Communist screenwriters (dubbed The Future) intellectually seduce him. Just when there’s traction on that story line, Johansson and Brolin hatch a plan so she can have her baby and keep it too. (Hill, in what amounts to a cameo, appears in this sequence.)
Considering all the talent involved, it’s only natural to be patient during the waning moments and keep faith that the sublime-ness will soon kick in. It doesn’t, except in oh-so-small doses: Frances McDormand, for instance, is a hoot (yes, a hoot!) in her scene as a batty projectionist. More of that, please!
Don’t bother emotionally investing in the characters either. That’s not the point. With lectures on gossip and greed, the Coen brothers are now trying to put their own subversive spin on the Hollywood political game. Indeed, considering that their droll comedy over the past three decades ranges from O Brother, Where Art Thou? to Barton Fink to Raising Arizona, more is expected from these Oscar winners than a handful of cheeky laughs and a message along the lines of “It’s so easy to be manipulated in Tinseltown!”
And yet the only true standout scene features no spoken dialogue. Surely you’ve seen the clips by now: For six glorious minutes, Tatum sings and tap-dances in Anchors Aweigh!, a Gene Kelly–style musical about sailors in a bar leaving for port. Just in case the Tatum charm-o-meter index isn’t already at full capacity after two Magic Mike flicks and his Beyoncé-approved turn on Lip Sync Battle, this showstopper seals it.
Like many moments in the period piece, though, the enjoyment fades in a hurry. And the two meaningful words that cap off most 1950s films — The End — can’t arrive soon enough.
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