But most prominently, and most deliciously, the film’s “day in the life of a studio executive” structure allows the Coens to have a great time staging scenes from Capitol’s in-production pictures. So, for stretches, Caesar plays like a Kentucky Fried Movie-style sketch movie (or, if you’d prefer something newer and artsier, like the Coens’ Forbidden Room), with the modest plot paused at will for elaborate, affectionate send-ups of B Westerns, tap musicals, Busby Berkeley-style dance numbers, drawing-room comedies, and biblical epics. And that attentiveness to detail extends to the framing story – with the old band back together (Roger Deakins as cinematographer, Carter Burwell as composer, “Roderick Jaynes” aka the Coens as editor), the picture looks, sounds, and feels like a movie not just set in the early 1950s, but made then.
What it never quite does is coalesce into a cohesive whole. The sense of dropping in to different movies extends a bit more than it should into the wraparound story; the screwball snap of square-jawed, tough-growling Brolin’s scenes goes slack when he’s off-screen, and that’s the speed where this movie – and, in most instances, the Coens – plays best. (Full disclosure: I may’ve just been unreasonably wistful for another Hudsucker Proxy.) The uncertainty of the pacing extends to the storytelling, which haphazardly attempts to rope in a singing cowboy’s transition into a “dinner jacket” leading man, a bathing beauty’s inconvenient pregnancy, and an oafish leading man’s kidnapping by Communist screenwriters, with sporadic narration by Michael Gambon to (not always successfully) smooth out the bumpy transitions. And the crowded cast has its unfortunate casualties – Jonah Hill and Frances McDormand, for example, make impressions, but both are wasted in one-scene, one-joke roles.
Yet it’s also worth noting and appreciating Hail, Caesar!’s unexpected ambition; it is, among other things, an exploration of the blacklist that’s not explicitly about the blacklist (and, it’s probably unnecessary to note, one that’s about 30 times more effective than Trumbo ); a charming snapshot of the arranged relationships among studio players; and, most surprising of all, the Coens’ most thoughtful examination of religious matters this side of A Serious Man. Such lofty goals don’t quite elevate the blackout-sketch quality at which most of the picture operates (and, frankly, excels), but they’ll keep viewers on their toes. It is, all in all, mid-level Coens. But as so many others have noted, mid-level Coens still tops most other filmmakers at their peak.
Hail, Caesar! is out Friday in wide release.