A studio fixer in the 1950s tries to keep production rolling when a star is kidnapped.
Joel and Ethan Coen return after the lo-fi meandering of Inside Llewyn Davis for a film that couldn't be more different. Set in the early 1950s, Hail, Caesar! dives deep inside the studio system for a tale of underhand dealings, crazy stars, kidnappings and some added Commie hysteria. And it has quite a lot of fun while doing it.
Mostly that's down to the typically excellent cast, headed up by Josh Brolin - who seems to be realising a surprising capacity for comedy in the wake of his turn in Inherent Vice. He's all over this picture, trying to keep the cogs of a major made up studio going amid all kinds of absurd, yet somehow more or less believeable, goings on.
The rest of the cast list is just as impressive - from George Clooney to Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill and a scene-stealing performance by Ralph Fiennes, another player increasingly trying out the comedy sphere. His scenes with young Alden Ehrenreich had the audience near tears, something which I haven't seen a comedy achieve in quite some time.
Make no mistake though, this is definitely the Coens at their most absurd - as close as they've come to that vein since the ramshackle Burn After Reading. But there's a little more structure here, thanks to Brolin's central narrative line, and if the brothers pop off for an extended tap dance number it's easy to dismiss as a consequence of hanging around a studio, though it does start to feel like the siblings just wanted to direct Channing Tatum in an homage to the best of Gene Kelly.
Movie fans will enjoy the numerous references to classic films, or more specifically film technique - like cinematographer Roger Deakins' wonderful apeing of the rigid, deep focus look of a bilical epic, or the layers of makeup Clooney appears under while on camera. For modern audiences it's an interesting glimpse behind the camera at the forgotten tricks of making movie magic.
Hail, Caesar! is certainly the Coens best outright comedy in years (which wouldn't be difficult) but it still has its weaker moments. The plot is meagre at best, with barely enough story to sustain half the 106 minute running time. And while the screwball tone is charming enough, it does become grating in the second hour. By the end, you get the feeling that you've just watched a bunch of friends having a bit of a laugh at the expense of the studio and while you might enjoy yourself as well it's pretty empty entertainment.