“Trumbo,” which earned Bryan Cranston an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, put a serious face on the plight of Communists working in 1950s Hollywood.
Opening Friday, Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Hail, Caesar!” paints that face with clown makeup and makes it do a spit take.
Set in 1951, the comedy depicts a day in the life of Capitol Pictures fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who’s charged with keeping all of the studio’s contract players in line.
Mannix greases the wheels so starlet Gloria DeLamour (Natasha Bassett) isn’t arrested on an early-morning morals charge. He concocts a way to shield swimming sensation DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) from a pregnancy scandal. And he delivers a $100,000 ransom when one of Capitol’s top draws, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped in full Roman regalia from the set of a biblical epic, also named “Hail, Caesar!” and taken to a beachfront Communist compound in Malibu.
All the action runs through Mannix. And Brolin, who previously worked with the Coen brothers on “No Country for Old Men” and “True Grit,” gets top billing. But he’s arguably the least necessary component in what feels less like a fully-realized movie than a collection of entertainingly quirky scenes.
Since their last full-fledged Coen brothers release, 2013’s “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the duo scripted 2014’s somber “Unbroken” and current best-picture nominee “Bridge of Spies.” Now, they’re exorcising all their pent-up silliness with this nutty ode to the Golden Age of Hollywood.
In his fourth collaboration with the Coens, following “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” “Intolerable Cruelty” and “Burn After Reading,” Clooney returns to full-on dolt mode. His outtakes while gazing upon the face of Jesus — aka this “swell figure from the East” — are priceless.
Coen regular, and Joel Coen’s wife, Frances McDormand pops up for a riotous scene as film editor C.C. Calhoun.
But the “Hail, Caesar!” MVP award goes to relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich (“Beautiful Creatures”) as singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle. When the studio has trouble casting the lead in its sophisticated drawing-room drama “Merrily We Dance,” the twangy, plate-of-beans-eating hayseed, who performs tiny rope tricks with his spaghetti, is taken off the set of his latest Western and thrust into a tuxedo among that movie’s valises, foyers and divans — with appropriately disastrous results.
The Coens deftly conquer a variety of filmmaking styles, from the lavish, Busby Berkeley-esque aquatic ballet starring Johansson’s Moran to the jovial awfulness of Hobie’s “Lazy Ol’ Moon.”
“No Dames!” the Coens’ take on elaborate musicals, is highlighted by a wildly acrobatic Gene Kelly-style number starring song-and-dance man Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) that ranks among some of the best big-screen choreography of the past few decades.
The Coens even manage to elicit some Wes Anderson-y vibes with Ralph Fiennes, in full “The Grand Budapest Hotel” mode, as snooty “Merrily We Dance” director Laurence Laurentz, who tries in vain to extract a “mirthless chuckle” from Hobie. And that’s before Anderson favorite Tilda Swinton turns up as identical twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker.
“Hail, Caesar!” doesn’t warrant inclusion among the Coens’ finest offerings.
Taken as a whole, it barely even works as a movie.
But when it’s really humming, “Hail, Caesar!” cranks out plenty of chuckles. And more than its fair share of mirth.
Contact Christopher Lawrence at email@example.com. On Twitter: @life_onthecouch