Hail, Caesar! ✮✮

Merrily We Troll Along

by Glenn Lovell

The brothers Coen continue to follow Coppola’s advice: “Make one for them, then make one for yourself.” The “them,” of course, is John Q., the great unwashed. Ethan and Joel made “Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men” and “True Grit” for their more mainstream followers, who don’t mind a little blood with their humor.

And they won Oscar recognition in the bargain.

But the Coens’ hearts have always been in smaller oddball projects, such farcical-to-deadpan show-biz fables as “Barton Fink,” “The Big Lebowski” and “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

You can now add the brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” to the second category. It’s a colorful if erratic salute to Hollywoodland in the early 1950s, when the studios attempted to fend off television with a slate clooneyof gauche religious epics, ersatz Gene Kelly musicals and soggy aqua-spectaculars starring Esther Williams. Desperate to return butts to seats, the industry threw everything at the screen to see what would stick. As it would turn out, very little did … until the mid-’60s when such New Hollywood hits as “The Graduate” and “Easy Rider” came along.

Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, beleaguered head of production of the floundering Capitol Pictures. Torn by Catholic guilt, when he isn’t wandering the deserted back lot Mannix can be found in the confessional asking for penance for imagined sins. Capitol has four films in various stages of production, including a musical with song-and-dance man Burt Gurney (a nimble Channing Tatum) and a sword-and-sandal epic starring studio bad boy Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Much is riding on the latter, which feels like a mashup of “The Robe” and “Ben-Hur.”

Mannix goes into crisis mode when Whitlock disappears from the lot. Is he on one of his legendary benders, or holed up with another underage starlet? Neither. He’s been kidnapped by a consortium of commie screenwriters who say they champion “the average Joe” but are really after a larger slice of studio profits. So much for the Coens’ lefty leanings. (HUAC has been painted out of the picture altogether.)

The trailer for “Hail, Caesar!” wants you to think that the proverbial laff-riot awaits. It doesn’t, by a long shot. Indeed, this Coen confection, obviously a homage to the great Preston Sturges, struck me as a dour reminder of a time when Hollywood was down for the count. It’s a hit-or-miss — mostly miss — succession of in-jokes (Wallace Beery and Bob Stack are among names dropped), double entendres and bascarletcklot vignettes enlivened by Roger Deakins’ cinematography and the occasionally inspired snicker. The best moments belong to Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich as, respectively, a snooty British director and a popular cowboy star being groomed for drawing-room comedies. The scene in which the increasingly exasperated Fiennes takes the hayseed aside to coach him on how to deliver the line “Would that it were so simple” is hilarious. Also watch for Frances McDormand’s chain-smoking editor, who nearly dies for her art.

Less successful are Scarlett Johansson’s coarse aqua-ballerina who could become a studio liability, and Mannix’s tiresome run-ins with twin gossip columnists played by Tilda Swinton channeling, badly, Hedda and Louella. “The facts are never beneath me,” crows Swinton’s Thora Thacker … or is it Thessaly Thacker?

A typical knee-slapper: an assistant on the Biblical epic asks a man on a cross (we see only his feet) if he’s “a principal or an extra” to determine if his crucifixion warrants a hot or cold lunch.

For my money, the fondest recent ribbing of Tinseltown is in “Ted 2.” Remember the opening Busby Berkeley dream sequence? I laughed louder at that than anything here, and I’m a longtime Coen brothers fan.

HAIL, CAESAR! ✮✮ With Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum. Written, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. 106 min. Rated PG-13 (for slight profanity, adult subject matter)

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