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George Clooney stars as Baird Whitlock in Hail, Caesar!, a comedy written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Universal Pictures

1 out of 4 stars

Title
Hail, Caesar!
Written by
Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Directed by
Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Starring
George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Alden Ehrenreich
Genre
Comedy
Classification
14A
Country
U.K./USA
Language
English
Year
2016

In their disappointing new comedy Hail, Caesar!, Ethan and Joel Coen tip their hats to a parade of Hollywood movies from the forties and fifties including the biblical spectacular Ben Hur, Gene Kelly's shore-leave dance pictures, the aqua-musicals of Esther Williams and the Roy Rogers westerns. But mainly they channel Mel Brooks through some very muffled medium.

Brooks's 1970s spoofs of the western, the horror film and the silent movie were broad and crude comedies, but they were also socially transgressive – remember the black sheriff in Blazing Saddles – and funny. Here, the Coen brothers stack up their affectionate copies of the classics and their satirical skits about the studio system without ever making any telling point about the movies they invoke or the society that produced them.

One moment we are watching a highly impressive reproduction of a synchronized aquatic ballet or enjoying a perfectly choreographed tap routine; the next we are listening to a rabbi and a priest bicker about the representation of Christ in the biblical epic that gives the movie its title. Never is there much sense that any of this is building toward anything. A Soviet sub appears at one point, but it would take a much larger deus ex machina to rescue this shipwreck.

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The story, which flags badly after its first big revelation and never achieves the madcap tone that would drive the film forward, revolves around the kidnapping of movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from the set of Hail, Caesar! Turns out to be a plot by a well-meaning study group of Marxist screenwriters, which must have seemed like a hilarious idea on paper but, as it burbles gently along, robs the kidnapping of any real tension while never delivering darker political satire. The flair for black comedy and deadpan that the Coens displayed so delightfully in their early hits has somehow abandoned them.

It is the task of the overworked studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) to recue Baird and save the big picture – when he's not trying to find someone to marry a pregnant mermaid (Scarlett Johansson) or convince a high-minded director (Ralph Fiennes) to accept a cowboy star (Alden Ehrenreich) in his society drama while defanging twin gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton in intriguing hats.)

In short, there are an awful lot of subplots and comic characters but none of the actors in this star-studded cast is allowed to build his laughs and the Coens just abandon several of these vivid personalities along the way.

Clooney is pleasant enough as he creates a mildly amusing version of a vacuous and self-satisfied star; Channing Tatum's big dance number is perfect and Jonah Hill has a well-executed cameo as a studio fixer.

But Swinton's twins are so identical that joke gets no mileage and Brolin's Mannix is far too pleasant, well-intentioned and balanced a character to be interesting. The actor seems a bit lost here as to what tone he's after, as does much of the rest of the cast.

Ultimately, the Coens seem to have some point to make about whether the movies are business or art, but in marked contrast to Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, whose equally large comic ensemble also included Fiennes and Swinton, no sharper purpose ever emerges from the affectionate nostalgia for a gilded age. Considering this is a movie about a Communist plot in McCarthy's America, that's an epic failure.

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