You would think that directors like the Coen Brothers would avoid making a "Hollywood movie," let alone one that pokes fun the Hollywood movie-making industry. Just when it seemed like bleak dramas and black comedies would become their repertoire, Joel and Ethan Coen come marching into theaters to present their silliest film yet. "Hail, Caesar!" in all its old-fashioned Hollywood glory, is a welcome departure from the Coens' gloomier efforts like "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "No Country For Old Men." It flows in the same vein as "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (another Coen comedy starring George Clooney), as both take heavy inspiration from stories of old. Though it doesn't stand up to "O Brother" or most of the Coens' previous films, "Hail, Caesar!" hilariously showcases the dynamic directing duo's affinity for exploring a wide range of topics ready to be brought to the screen.
Set in the early 1950s, studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin as a fictional version of the real man) runs back and forth between the sets of various Hollywood pictures, making sure that certain movie star scandals are kept out of the gossip columns. On the set of a Roman epic titled "Hail, Caesar!" leading man Baird Whitlock (Clooney) is kidnapped. Soon after this, Mannix receives a ransom note from Whitlock's kidnappers, calling themselves "The Future." Meanwhile, Mannix juggles other on-set problems, including a pregnant water ballet actress (Scarlett Johansson) and a dim-witted cowboy actor (Alden Ehrenreich) on the set of a lavish period drama led by an esteemed director (Ralph Fiennes).
When you think about it, nearly any era in Hollywood history could've easily been satirized by the Coens, but the infamously campy productions of the 50s practically lend themselves to be turned into wonderful comedic fodder for the directors. Everything from the over-the-top stunts of the western adventure, the stilted performances of the period drama and the homoerotic dancing of the male-driven musical are explored in hilarious detail. It is clear that the Coens have a soft spot for this extravagant style of Hollywood filmmaking, filling the frame with sharp colors and even shaper comedic timing from the cast.
Once again, the Coens assemble a flawless ensemble for their flamboyant 50s-era flick. Clooney finds himself as yet another numbskull in a Coen Brothers film, although this time his character is pliable instead of stubborn. Johansson dons the Joisey accent she mastered in "Don Jon" for her role as snarky actress DeeAnn Moran. Channing Tatum also lends his undeniable charm to the film as a Gene Kelly-esque musical star, proving once more that he is game to exploit his good looks for comedic effect. The scene-stealer here is Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, who absolutely milks it when it comes to his character's thick southern accent and feebleminded mannerisms.
The Coens' attention to surface detail is as great as ever, but there isn't much going on beneath it all. Then again, the films that this film lampoons didn't have a lot of thematic depth either. It feels more or less like the Coens made the film to keep themselves busy while they search for headier film ideas, but at least they had fun doing so. At the end of the day, "Hail, Caesar!" is a simple exercise for the Coen Brothers' comedic muscles; a film with less to say and more to show.