Josh Brolin keeps chaotic "Hail, Caesar!" centered

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Josh Axelrod

First and foremost, the Coen Brothers are two of the greatest, most innovative minds working in Hollywood today. Now that that’s out of the way, their newest film, “Hail, Caesar!” is a bit of a mess.
 
Nonetheless, it is beautifully shot, rife with amusing cameos and never uninteresting. Even if it’s a slight misfire compared to the rest of their impressive filmography, the Coen Brothers have proven yet again that they know how to make watchable and entertaining movies.
 
Brolin, a reliable Coen favorite, turns in another excellent performance and keeps the messy narrative grounded. Playing Eddie Mannix, an omnipotent Hollywood fixer who runs a major film company, Brolin runs from set to set solving problems.

The Oscar-winning writer-directors have created an eclectic cast of characters to populate their colorful film. Mannix has to find his missing movie star (a gleefully good George Clooney), keep a gossip columnist and her identical twin from sniffing around the studio’s scandals (both played by the reliably absurd Tilda Swinton), and figure out what to do about a rising starlet’s pregnancy (a brash and playful Scarlett Johannson).
 
Along the way more familiar faces pop up, with Channing Tatum, Frances McDormand and Jonah Hill almost stealing the show in their brief-but-memorable moments.
 
The film grapples with a multitude of themes, including Communism, capitalism, Christianity, the struggles of the working man and the importance of movie-making. Unfortunately the Coen Brothers have bitten off a lot more than they can chew and never quite find their stride in an exploration of these different ideas.

“Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin): Here at Capitol Pictures, as you know, millions of people look to us for information and uplift and, yes, entertainment. We’re going to give it to them.”

What “Hail, Caesar!” does achieve brilliantly is its tribute to the glorious yesteryears of Hollywood. As Mannix visits different sets to solve problems, viewers see a sampling of archetypal movies being filmed. Each specific movie genre is treated lovingly with snippets shown of big-budget biblical films, singing cowboys, synchronized swimming sequences, elegant dramas and Gene Kelly-esque musicals. These scenes are marvelous and easily make up for the overcrowded plot.
 
The Coens tend to do better when they stick to a focused subject, and their most affecting work can be seen in the later stage of their career with 2009’s “A Serious Man” and 2015’s “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Both of these movies strike a harmonious balance between wacky characters, absurd realism and heavy themes. “Hail, Caesar!” sometimes feels like it is trying to achieve the seriousness and profoundness of “No Country for Old Men,” coupled with the goofy abandon found in “Burn After Reading” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou.”
 
As a fun Hollywood send-up, “Hail, Caesar!” features some incredible scenes but as an enlightened discourse on religion and economics this film will never join the ranks of those it celebrates, proving that sometimes the parts are greater than their sum.