The Coen brothers’ latest comedy, “Hail, Caesar!,” a love letter to vintage Hollywood, took the pipe at the box-office because no one goes out to the theater on Super Bowl weekend.
Well, as the film’s aw-shucks singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) might say, or rather take-after-take can’t seem to say, “Would that it t’were so simple.” (I’ll come back to this in a sec.)
Placating the foppish flummoxed director (Ralph Fiennes) of Doyle’s transitional high-society film is just one of the jobs studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) manages concurrently. On another soundstage, for instance, his Capitol Pictures’ water ballet star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is starting to burst out of her mermaid costume. No small matter for an unmarried woman in earlier times. He’s arranging for Moran to, err, adopt, a baby.
All in a day’s work for the studio fixer, whose job is to keep projects on schedule and their stars aligned. (Brolin’s Mannix is based on real MGM fixer Eddie Mannix. His story was told in 2006’s “Hollywoodland,” that co-starred Ben Affleck as TV Superman George Reeves whose untimely death was the subject of speculation.)
Somewhere in the mix of tributes to every golden age genre is the studio’s biggest project, the prestige film “Hail, Caesar!” featuring their biggest star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). The Coens’ film-within-a-film is too obviously MGM’s “Ben-Hur,” even that they share the same subtitle, “A Tale of the Christ.”
But biblical morality tales (parts of this one’s narration are even reminiscent of DeMille’s voice-overs in “The Ten Commandments“), out-of-wedlock scandals, and sailor musicals (Channing Tatum’s song and dance skills notwithstanding, a complete Gene Kelly-ish musical number, seriously?) — things that the Coens are betting the farm on — regrettably don’t resonate with today’s audiences.
Neither does vilifying collectivism, which is the framework on which all of their vignettes hang. Just as the studio’s “Hail, Caesar!” is about to wrap, Clooney is kidnapped by a gang of communist writers. Wayne Knight with greased hair and a toga makes for a hysterical moment, as does Clooney’s line once indoctrinated (“So, do I get a share of my ransom?”) but for a generation indoctrinated in Seth Rogan’s back hair and Judd Apatow’s fart jokes, this one never had a chance.
That’s a shame because this lovingly filmed smart comedy features great performances, clever writing and has all the depth of the brothers’ “Barton Fink.”