Hail, Caesar! looks to (and learns from) Hollywood's Golden Age

George Clooney as the not-so-bright thespian Baird Whitlock

George Clooney as the not-so-bright thespian Baird Whitlock

With the mocking wit we've come to expect of the Coen brothers, Hail, Caesar! creates the sort of movie magic its makers both celebrate and lampoon. Joel and Ethan have assembled for their latest comedy a sought-after ensemble — Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, and Jonah Hill — and, to a person, directed their talents toward ridiculousness of the highest order. It's a testament to the writer-directors' cachet that they almost certainly had several other A-listers lining up to make fools of themselves.

Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a "fixer" at the fictional Capitol Pictures that also featured in Barton Fink, a much darker deconstruction of Hollywood's inner workings. This is a time when stars are stars and the studios do everything in their power to keep them that way. Mannix's list of duties revolves around protecting the good names of Capitol's above-the-line talents, whether by downplaying rumors of their antics to Tinseltown's leading gossip columnist (Swinton) or marrying off an unwed mother-to-be (Johansson) whose aquatic musicals bring in a pretty penny for the company.

Essentially surrounded by cartoon characters, Mannix is portrayed as a fundamentally decent man, sometimes comically so; even his own priest grows weary of his frequent visits to the confessional. "You're not that bad," the man of the cloth tells Mannix after he once again admits to sneaking a few cigarettes despite telling his wife he's trying to quit. (The actual Mannix may have been less decent: The MGM exec was suspected of having an actor offed.)

His main concern over the 27 hours that Hail, Caesar! takes place: Baird Whitlock (Clooney), star of the fictional biblical epic from which this film takes its name, has disappeared from set just as the lavish production is scheduled to finish shooting. As fate would have it, the leading man has been kidnapped by a faction of Communists with subversive ideas that the not-especially-bright thespian is quickly receptive to.

One of the Coens' best jokes here is in simply casting Clooney again. There's something inherently funny about the fact that he's only appeared in their comedies — see also O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty, and Burn After Reading — as well as the fact that he may be better at playing blockheads than he is at anything else. That holds true here, with Clooney's dunderheaded charm carrying many a scene.

This is the Coens at their most playful, and Hail Caesar! A Tale of the Christ is only one of their films-within-the-film. Fiennes' prestige-picture director is working on Merrily We Dance while Tatum's singer-and-dancer shoots an elaborately homoerotic sequence in a musical about sailors out to sea. As with much else in the movie, these scenes sometimes feel like excuses for the Coens to affectionately mock their favorite Hollywood tropes of yore — almost the entire plot is a MacGuffin, with half the humor arising from how inconsequential it is. In that sense, it most closely resembles The Big Lebowski and Burn After Reading.

If that sounds self-indulgent, it's because it is. It's also riotous more often than not. The Coens extend several jokes for so long that they momentarily stop being funny, only to loop back around and become even more hilarious than they were in the first place. They may not make them like they used to, but at least they still make them like this.

Hail, Caesar!
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Opens Friday, Lagoon Cinema