Coen Brothers' movies tend to spring from two very distinct wells of inspiration. You have the bleak, existential, miserablist Coens (A Serious Man, No Country For Old Men, Inside Llewyn Davis) and the zany, madcap Coens (O Brother Where Art Thou?, Raising Arizona, Intolerable Cruelty) who take their cues more from screwball-comedy maestro Preston Sturges than from someone like Martin Scorsese or Ingmar Bergman.
Most fall on a spectrum between those two poles, and often enough their best films (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading, Barton Fink) are nestled in the sweet spot that exists dead center between them. The one unifying element in all of their movies is their worship for but utter lack of reverence toward classic movie tropes, which they love to employ and then turn inside out with reckless abandon.
Their new film, Hail, Caesar!, lives pretty comfortably on the screwball side. For a Coen Brothers' film it's surprisingly gentle. The Coens are often accused of harboring a deep contempt for their characters, and in movies like Burn After Reading and Barton Fink it's hard to argue against that. But, as ridiculous as everyone is in Hail, Caesar!, the filmmakers' abiding affection shines through. Even the worst characters here are pretty lovable.
The movie is also a lot more direct about its influences. Set in the 1940s and focusing on a day in the life of a studio "fixer" named Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), Hail, Caesar! is sort of the sunnier flip side to Barton Fink's much more vicious take on old Hollywood. Rather than rub our noses in the muck, in Hail, Caesar! the Coens would much rather give us a friendly wink and a nudge. This is a movie that's in love with movies.
Eddie is a devout Catholic, and they have a lot of fun turning him into a sort of dimestore Christ figure. He suffers gamely for the sins of his industry, helping a caustic starlet (Scarlett Johansson) cover up an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, guiding a dimwitted singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) who the studio insists on casting in a stuffy drawing-room melodrama, fending off a pair of malicious twin-sister gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton, having a lot of fun), asking a quartet of religious leaders for theological guidance on a script ("The chariot race seemed a little fakey to me," offers the Orthodox patriarch), and — most dramatically — attempting to pay off a mysterious cadre called The Future who have kidnapped one of the studio's biggest stars (George Clooney) for, as it turns out, a pretty asinine reason.
The Coens use this loose narrative framework to recreate scenes from a number of classic Hollywood movies, including Busby Berkeley musicals like Million Dollar Mermaid, Gene Autry singing westerns, and massive Biblical epics like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments. They're clearly having the time of their lives skewering some of the more, shall we say, dated elements (the terrible matte paintings and awkward stunts are fantastic), but you can also tell how much they love this shit. The highlight is a Footlight Parade-inspired dance number featuring a tap-dancing Channing Tatum, which moves from silly and cheeky to not-so-subtly homoerotic before it's done.
Hail, Caesar! is packed full of jokes (my favorite is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it gag involving an itchy foot) and movie references both obvious and obscure (one of the minor character's names is a pretty arbitrary callback to Vertigo). The Coens have also seemingly called all their actor friends and invited them over to play. We get a bunch of funny glorified cameos from Jonah Hill, Christopher Lambert, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, and even Fischer Stevens. I guess John Goodman must have had the flu that day.
You get the sense that everyone was having a blast here, which is not always the case in Coen movies. There's a looseness to the performances that I don't generally associate with their films. Brolin has probably the least fun role, but he provides an anchor for all the ridiculousness swirling around him. Clooney lovingly roasts his own movie-star image and proves once again that he's one of the most underrated comic actors out there. Swinton is both monstrous and hilarious. Johansson's role is pretty one-note, but she plays that note brilliantly. The standouts are Tatum (the less said the better) and relative newcomer Ehrenreich, who steals every scene he's in and is obviously a star in the making.
This movie is a lot of fun, even if it's basically cotton candy. It doesn't pack the punch you tend to expect from these guys, and I'm going to guess it won't have a lot of staying power in relation to their masterpieces. It's pretty much mid-level Coens. But even mid-level Coens tends to be better than 90 percent of the rest of what's out there.