When the Coen Brothers miss, they miss with gusto. Images of Babe Ruth, swinging and collapsing in a heap from the effort come to mind.
And when they miss — think “Intolerable Cruelty” “Burn After Reading” –they often miss with George Clooney as their star.
Eddie Mannix would see the pattern. A famous studio “fixer,” the guy who kept troubled productions from collapsing and scandal-seeking stars out of the headlines, from the late ’20s to the edge of the ’50s, Eddie would have steered the studio clear of George after “Oh Brother!”
Josh Brolin plays a fictionalized Mannix trying to keep gay stars from being outed, a pregnant single startlet (Scarlett Johannsson) from giving birth while unmarried and a kidnapped superstar (Clooney) from wrecking a pricey “Tale of the Christ” swords and sandals epic, “Hail, Caesar!” that Eddie’s unseen boss has the studio’s prestige invested in.
Eddie’s with Capital Pictures (not MGM or “Metro”, where the real Mannix worked), and he is written and played by Brolin as a pious man whose constant trips to confession are mostly driven by “lying to my wife” about giving up cigarettes.
Eddie has much bigger secrets. His studio’s version of Esther Williams (Johannsson, her character named DeeAnna Moran) needs a husband, and a lot of help getting out of that mermaid tail in between aquatic ballets.
His boss orders him to put drawlin’, singin’ cowpoke Hobart “Hobie” Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich of “Stoker”) into the lead in a tuxedo’d drawing room drama, with fey sophisticate Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes, terrific) struggling to create a performance out of this blunder.
And then there’s the missing (another Coen kidnapping caper) Baird Whitlock, sort of a Tyrone Power type, playing a centurion who quakes in the presence of Jesus in “Hail, Caesar!” Eddie will have to call on all his cunning to keep this from the dueling twin sister gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) and crack the case.
“It’s a long story. I’ll tell it to ya, sometime.”
Only he doesn’t. And that’s not the biggest shortcoming in this semi-silly stumble by the guys who gave us “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and “A Serious Man.” The movie is flatfooted in the extreme.
Random moments — such as a big, gay sailors dance number starring Channing Tatum, who absolutely kills — tickle and delight. Swinton is a stitch. Joel Coen’s wife, Oscar winner Frances McDormand, delights as a chain-smoking film editor (Weren’t they all?)
But a confessional/recruitment meeting by Hollywood’s communist screenwriters, where they admit they’ve been shoving messages about their version of “The Future” into scripts, flies in the face of the facts and of history. What, HUAC was right? Making them mostly Jewish archetypes and stereotypes doesn’t help. These scenes drag and grate.
Brolin and Clooney play their characters straight, when snappy and broad was called for. Brolin slaps sense into people, here and there. But Clooney doesn’t make his dopey movie star dopey enough. The picture’s pacing is flaccid. The Coens wanted it to be madcap, but couldn’t manage it.
And truth be told, the recreated “Golden Age of Hollywood” scenes of movies within the movie lack the luster, the “Dream Factory” polish. Some of that can be laid at the feet of the digital “film” quality of today, and some has to do with the Coens not figuring out how to stage things the way they were shot back then, not getting that long lost pursuit of perfection.
The star the Coens set up for a “breakout” here is Ehrenreich. And he’s a hoot. But the movie around him? An over-reaching whiff. The Coens’ paired batting average, it turns out, is no better than Woody Allen’s.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some suggestive content and smoking
Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johannsson, Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Alden Ehrenreich, Frances McDormand
Credits: Written and directed by Joen and Ethan Coen. A Universal release.
Running time: 1:46