The film observes twenty-seven or so hours in the life of Eddie Mannix, the head of physical production at Capitol Pictures. Both the studio and the executive are dream versions of the real life Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the real Eddie Mannix, a fixer who dealt with MGM's problems in sometimes ruthless ways.
In the Coen Brother's fantasy, he is refashioned into a sensible and likable man charmingly performed by Josh Brolin. And in those twenty-seven hours, we see him put out fires ranging from the out-of-wedlock pregnancy of their bathing beauty star, the sudden promotion of a Western star to a prestige picture, the hounding of gossip reporters and the kidnapping of the lead star in Capitol's biblical epic, Hail, Caesar!
The kidnapping would seem to be the center of the film, but in the strangely idyllic world the Coen Brother's weave, it turns into a study group with the kidnapped Baird Whitlock, played with dim-witted panache by George Clooney, learning about the oppression inherent in the system.
Oddly, this plot is often forgotten as the story also shifts to Western star Hobie Doyle's first day on the more upscale project Merrily, We Dance. Hobie is played by Alden Ehrenreich and he quickly steals the movie from both Clooney and Brolin. He's immensely watchable and imbues Hobie with a surprising amount of charm. Whether trying to parse the instructions of erudite director Laurence Laurentz — a criminally underused Ralph Fiennes — or impressing his studio appointed date at the premiere of his most recent picture, Ehrenreich makes Hobie incredibly likable. In fact, it's a shame he isn't the film's real focus.
Which is the chief problem with the film. Between Mannix checking on the various problems around the lot, Baird's Communist awakening and Hobie's ascension from the Westerns, the film lacks a true focus. The kidnapping plot is, oddly, the least compelling. Anytime Mannix actually has to deal with that problem, it feels like an afterthought and it is resolved largely off-screen. Similarly, the pregnancy beat featuring Scarlett Johansson as the star of the studio's water ballet pictures receives only a handful of scenes.
And yet, there is a lot to like in the film. The dance number featuring Channing Tatum is delightful, if a little too modern. Frances MacDormand makes a brief appearance as a trusty editor assembling the first few scenes of Merrily, We Dance. She's a welcome face and between the able reaction of a 1950s chamber drama and the editor's own confrontation with her Moviola, the sequence is breezy and goofy. It may actually be the ideal tone the Coen Brothers were trying to achieve with the film as a whole.
In fact, a movie about the making of Merrily, We Dance may have been more satisfying than Hail, Caesar!
But if that were the case, we'd miss out on fun jibes at biblical epics and the latter day MGM musicals. We'd also miss David Krumholtz and Fisher Stevens stealing their brief moments as part of the fifth-column types holding Baird hostage and Tilda Swinton's gossip monger double act.
Perhaps the Coen Brothers wanted to do too much with this idea and never quite found the way to balance it. Each individual piece offers plenty to enjoy, but it never quite adds up to anything. The breeziness is certainly intentional, but perhaps it is too breezy?
Hail, Caesar! has its charms as an inoffensive and nostalgic romp through Hollywood's Golden Age, and it certainly should be lauded for giving Ehrenreich a moment to shine. But in that nostalgia, it stumbles in creating a substance to bind its ideas together. Still, it is certainly a fun and enjoyable Hollywood-style dream of itself.