A kick for those who've distractedly thumbed through Hollywood Babylon, Joel and Ethan Coen's bustling comedy Hail, Caesar! looks back to the waning days of moviedom's golden age: specifically, to 1951, when big-studio fixers were still tidying up the messes left by the talent. As we'd expect, the Coens' remembrance is mordant, but it also has a certain buoyancy -- a quality rarely associated with their films. The fizziness, though, proves fleeting.
The central character, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), is named after the outsize, real-life MGM executive who was tasked with keeping stars out of the gossip magazines. In Hail Caesar!, Mannix makes a 5 AM visit to the bungalow of a rising starlet posing for a sweaty photographer; he arrives just before the cops, called out to investigate a "possible French-postcard situation." It's a great line, one that shows off the filmmakers' ear for era- and milieu-specific language, a consistent pleasure in their movies.
Mannix watches rushes of Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, a biblical epic starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a nitwit who is roofied on set by a pair of toga-clad extras working on behalf of a Communist cell. The movie idol is held for ransom by tweedy Red screenwriters who convince him of the nobility of their cause ("Of course I'm for the little guy!").
That provides the main storyline into which the Coens braid multiple subplots. These revolve around other Capitol titles in production, many heading toward disaster. Knocked-up aqua-musical star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is having trouble fitting into her mermaid costume, her predicament made funnier by Johansson's sharp tough-broad interpretation. But that verve is missing in too many other scenes.