The big book of Joel and Ethan Coen's characters must be stuffed with ideas, paper scraps jotted with traits and scrapes for the next Dude, Barton or Marge to get into and out of.
Hail, Caesar! is what happens when that book is dumped open, its contents fluttering into randomness.
Pick any piece and there's a spark of familiar creativity: the same golden era Hollywood studio that drove Barton Fink mad, a kidnapping a la The Big Lebowski, A Serious Man's ironic Jewish theology and various tones or subtexts. Plus that undeniably Coen dialogue, in which a project is "suckled by a she-wolf and nurturing us in return" and a sex scandal is a "possible French postcard."
Not that Hail, Caesar! is entirely self-derivative. Several scenes suggest the movie the Coens had in mind — a quirkier Trumbo —but ironic gripes about how corruptly Hollywood treats writers can only fill so much running time. One musical number is unlike any the brothers have crafted before. Too many other scenes aren't.
The plot wanders around Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), Capitol Pictures' hush-guy private eye and its top decision maker, an improbable combination never delved into; it just is. Eddie investigates the disappearance of matinee idol Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), off the set of his biblical epic knock-off of The Robe.
Eddie is also burdened with a pregnant but unmarried Esther Williams-style star (Scarlett Johansson), an effete director (Ralph Fiennes) attempting to make a singing cowboy (scene stealer Alden Ehrenreich) into a suave leading man, competing twin-sister gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton times two) and a Gene Kelly-ish star (Channing Tatum) with an agenda.
Don't let the star-studded cast fool you. Aside from Brolin, none are consistent threads in the Coens' tapestry, never really tying this movie together. Clooney's vain Communist Party dupe is a comedic dead-end, as are Fiennes' diction jokes with Ehrenreich. What you see of Jonah Hill in trailers is pretty much what you get. Frances McDormand supports husband Joel Coen with one scene, adding her Oscar cred to advertisements.
Hail, Caesar! is maddeningly hit-and-miss, first showcasing Tatum in an On the Town-type dance number subverting Magic Mike's erotica, then stranding him in a thudding climax at sea. The Coens' Hollywood spoofing works in dashes; obvious stunt doubles, an insert card reading "divine presence to be shot." By comparison, Johansson's watery production number is lengthy and mirthless.
Devotees wish Hail, Caesar! could be "another weave of gossamer" from the Coens, as a character describes fine cinema here. Not this time around, although sorting out creative chaff can't hurt for the future. What's a misshapen lark among friends?
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.