Fea­tur­ing both Zootropo­lis and Zoolan­der 2, this is­sue’s the­atri­cal re­view sec­tion has the dis­tinct whiff of in­car­cer­ated an­i­mals.

DI­REC­TORS Joel Coen, Ethan Coen CAST Josh Brolin, Ge­orge Clooney, Alden Ehren­re­ich, Scar­lett Jo­hans­son, Ralph Fi­ennes, Tilda Swin­ton, Chan­ning Ta­tum

PLOT Hol­ly­wood, the ’50s. Capi­tol Pic­tures is mak­ing pres­tige pic­ture Hail, Cae­sar! A Tale Of The Christ when its star (Clooney) dis­ap­pears. Stu­dio fixer Ed­die Man­nix (Brolin) has to bring him back, while also deal­ing with other daily is­sues.

If self-pla­gia­rism were a crim­i­nal of­fence, the Coen broth­ers would be fac­ing a long stretch in san Quentin.

Hail, Cae­sar! shares the Hol­ly­wood-stu­dio set­ting of Bar­ton Fink, and, no doubt to the delight of Coen­verse the­o­rists ev­ery­where, the ex­act-same fic­tional stu­dio: Capi­tol pic­tures (they’ve come a long way from Wallace Beery wrestling flicks). its plot, such as it is, hangs loosely on a kid­nap­ping hook, just like The Big Le­bowski, whose Busby Berke­ley dream se­quence also finds good com­pany in Hail, Cae­sar!’s elab­o­rate mu­si­cal num­bers. it’s slathered with the ’50s pe­riod sheen of The Hud­sucker Proxy, tus­sles with sim­i­lar ex­is­ten­tial is­sues to A Se­ri­ous Man, and gath­ers a sprawl­ing en­sem­ble of big names in char­ac­ter-ac­tor roles, as Burn Af­ter Read­ing did. There is an ill-fated suit­case full of money, a shouty fat man, a lit­tle yap­ping dog, philo­soph­i­cal mono­logues from an ec­cen­tric white­hair, and ge­orge Clooney mug­ging.

Though it’s not re­ally Clooney’s film. as kid­napped mat­inée idol Baird Whit­lock, another ge­orge-shaped Coen creation who’s two steps be­hind the rest of the room, he is merely their macguf­fin; like the baby in Rais­ing Ari­zona, only not as smart and a touch more help­less. it’s Josh Brolin as Capi­tol’s Head Of phys­i­cal pro­duc­tion, ed­die man­nix, who drives things — al­beit not al­ways us­ing the most di­rect route.

Man­nix, the clos­est thing this movie has to a main char­ac­ter, is another of the Coens’ se­ri­ous men. A fixer for the stu­dio, there’s a lit­tle of Tom Re­gan from Miller’s Cross­ing about him, though he’s armed with petty cash rather than a pis­tol. He will do some­thing as ob­jec­tion­able as slap­ping an ac­tress for tak­ing part in an un­sanc­tioned photo-ses­sion, but is also wracked with Catholic guilt over ly­ing to his wife about quit­ting smok­ing. And there’s a greater temp­ta­tion than to­bacco: a big-time job of­fer from aero­space com­pany Lock­heed. “Aviation is se­ri­ous,” he’s told. “You won’t be shoul­der­ing a load of crack­pot prob­lems.” But Man­nix — played by Brolin as a charm­ing bruiser who’s not quite as un­flap­pable as he’d like peo­ple to think — thrives on the crack­pot prob­lems.

Of which Whit­lock’s dis­ap­pear­ance is but one. There’s also the mat­ter of cherub-faced B-western star Ho­bie Doyle (Alden Ehren­re­ich) be­ing roped into a pris­tine, draw­ing-room drama, to the de­spair of its man­nered English di­rec­tor, Lau­rence Lau­rentz (Ralph Fi­ennes). Then there’s the Es­ther Wil­liams-ish mer­maid (Scar­lett Jo­hans­son), fac­ing the scan­dal of be­ing both preg­nant and un­mar­ried. Plus, ri­val twin-sis­ter en­ter­tain­ment colum­nists Thora and Thes­saly Thacker (Tilda Swin­ton, tasked with ba­si­cally play­ing a dou­ble Hedda Hop­per who’s at war with her­self ) are on Ed­die’s back, too.

This is the Dream Fac­tory op­er­at­ing at max­i­mum pro­duc­tiv­ity, and Joel and Ethan revel in the ab­sur­di­ties of the stu­dio sys­tem, whereby di­rec­tors can’t pick their stars, and stars have to change their im­age at the wag of a fat fin­ger and date who they’re damn well told. On the one hand, the broth­ers are snick­er­ing at the silli­ness of how things used to be, but on the other they are cel­e­brat­ing this by­gone Golden Age. Be­cause, be­yond all the trade­marks, gags and Ge­or­gian gurn­ing, what Hail, Cae­sar! es­sen­tially amounts to is a se­ries of im­pres­sively mounted pas­tiches.

There’s the Jo­hans­son-cen­tred syn­chro­nised-swim­ming se­quence, fea­tur­ing a gi­ant, me­chan­i­cal whale. There’s a full-on, as­ton­ish­ingly in­ven­tive song ’n’ dance num­ber fea­tur­ing a tap­danc­ing Chan­ning Ta­tum and a bunch of sailor-boys lament­ing that “We Ain’t Gonna See No Dames”. There’s cow­boy Doyle’s lat­est pic­ture, a twee Western named Lazy Ol’ Moon, com­plete with a can­tan­ker­ous prospec­tor-type. And there’s Hail, Cae­sar! it­self, which glows con­vinc­ingly with all the grandeur and pom­pos­ity of a true, old-school Hol­ly­wood epic. In each case, the Coens’ A-crew (in­clud­ing Mary Zophres on cos­tumes, Roger Deakins as DP and Carter Bur­well scor­ing) nail the genre per­fectly. It’s an as­ton­ish­ing tech­ni­cal achieve­ment.

Where Hail, Cae­sar! fal­ters, though, is in the glue that binds all these elab­o­rate sketches. Man­nix’s tra­vails don’t en­twine sat­is­fac­to­rily, and while the flour­ishes are fan­tas­tic, none re­ally move the story for­ward. It’s clear the Coens aren’t in­ter­ested in sus­tain­ing the sense of mys­tery at who ex­actly has star­napped Whit­lock, so it’s hard for the au­di­ence to care ei­ther when the big re­veal hits. And, as good as Brolin is, the char­ac­ter lacks the culty ap­peal of, say, The Dude in The Big Le­bowski, whose sham­bolic na­ture matched that film’s saggy, shaggy sto­ry­telling. It’s not like the film is hol­low — hid­den at its heart, in fact, is a strug­gle for the soul of Hol­ly­wood — it’s just that it feels more like a se­ries of pleas­ant di­ver­sions rather than a sin­gle, solid jour­ney.

That said, if you’re a com­mit­ted Coenophile (as we all should be, right?), you’re un­likely to be too both­ered by all this. Likely to fry the mind of any­one who hasn’t yet built up a re­sis­tance to the broth­ers’ foibles and predilec­tions over the past 16 films, it’s eas­ily the most Coen-y Coen movie they’ve put out. But then, they are steal­ing from the best.

Ver­dict A sort of-se­quel to Bar­ton Fink? A pseudo-re­make of The Big Le­bowski? A Dream Fac­tory take on The Hud­sucker Proxy? Hail, Cae­sar! is all of these things, and more. If only the cen­tral story were more fo­cused.

Gla­di­a­tor 2 lacked

pe­riod ac­cu­racy.

Top: Sur­prise! a cameo­ing Jonah Hill shows off his rub­ber-stamp col­lec­tion. Above: ralph’s party wasn’t quite go­ing to plan.

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