OK, I admit I was a little disappointed. Being a dyed-in-the-wool Coen Brothers fan, I had been looking forward to seeing their latest movie, partly for its purportedly all-star cast and largely because anything to do with 'old Hollywood' (especially sending it up) is guaranteed to tickle my funny bone. While this film is far from an all-out dud like their needless remake of "The Ladykillers", it is very definitely middle-range Coen Brothers and not up there with their best.
Despite their award-winning record, the brothers have never claimed to be part of the Hollywood establishment, and pointed barbs from talented outsiders are often on target. However, unlike "Barton Fink" which was ultimately a mean-spirited jab at La-la Land in the 1930s, finally sending the whole shooting match up in flames, 'Caesar' is an episodic and meandering look at 50s Hollywood, with a tongue-in-cheek approach to its output and foibles. Insofar as there is any story being told, we follow one day in the life of the film's main character (Josh Brolin), studio executive Eddie Mannix, based on a real-life and reputedly ruthless behind-the-scenes fixer of the period. A fastidious Catholic who confesses his 'sins' on a regular basis, Mannix's true faith is in Hollywood's 'magic'; tidying up other people's messes is really what keeps him going.
His main problem today is the disappearance of superstar George Clooney (playing his third role as a Coen Brothers 'idiot'), one scene away from completing the epic of the title, who has been snatched from the set in his leather skirt by a disaffected bunch of Communist screenwriters (shades of the anti-American witch trials of the time). Clooney demonstrates that even great Hollywood stars can be gurning boobs as well! We are also introduced to Scarlett Johansson's Esther Williams-esque mermaid, in the club with no husband to hand, for whom Mannix plans a scenario where she can adopt her own kid. (Hello, Loretta Young). Meanwhile on the studio lot we meet acrobatic cowboy Hobie, played by the little-known Alden Ehrenreich, who incidentally gives the movie's best performance, as he is roped into a high-falutin' drawing-room comedy, a la Gary Cooper?, under the exasperated eye of pernickety director Ralph Fiennes. Then there is song-and-dance man Channing Tatum, doing a remarkably able pastiche of Gene Kelly, although rather more sexually explicit than would have been tolerated back then.
The film's cast is huge, and most of them are given very little to do. Jonah Hill has about two minutes of screen time and Coen regular Tilda Swinton playing twin gossip columnists (Hedda Hopper-cum-Luella Parsons) is something of a waste of time. France McDormand, however, has a knock-out cameo as a film editor who nearly comes to an Isadora Duncan sticky end. There is even a Carmen Miranda-ish character for us to identify. The movie largely resembles one of those early talkie productions, where each of the studio's contracted stars did their little bit in the hope that these small turns would add up to a feature film. "Hail, Caesar" is similarly far too patchy to be satisfying, although there are definite laughs to be found. For example, the scene where various religious leaders are called in to ensure that 'the tale of the Christ' which is shooting will not manage to offend any one is hilarious, especially with Robert Picardo's bolshy rabbi. However these affectionate felicities are few and far between.
Like Woody Allen movies, minor Coen Brothers' films are still potentially more entertaining than most, even if they occasionally turn out to be something short of a hoped-for masterpiece.