Lawrence Toppman

‘Caesar’ just Romes around in search of a worthwhile story

Scarlett Johansson in "Hail, Caesar!"
Scarlett Johansson in "Hail, Caesar!" TNS

“Hail, Caesar!” Hail, no! Maybe a faint nod of mild approval, but that’s all.

The Coen brothers’ new movie, set in Hollywood in 1951, brings easy laughs but dissipates from memory moments later, like the cheesy films to which it pays homage – or, perhaps, mocks.

The title refers to a biblical epic being made at mythical Capitol Pictures. It may also be a nod to production chief Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who deals with a kidnapped actor, Communist screenwriters, a pregnant swimming star with no interest in legitimizing her baby, venal twin gossip columnists and a drawing room comedy that’s failing because the studio chief insists its leading man should be an untested cowboy actor.

And none of it amounts to much.

We can’t get excited about the pregnant swimmer (Scarlett Johansson) or the fey director of the drawing room picture (Ralph Fiennes) or even the star of the biblical epic (George Clooney), because they have no depth. When the writers kidnap Clooney’s Baird Whitlock, hoping to get a $100,000 ransom for their Soviet masters, he amiably sips cocktails and listens to Professor Herbert Marcuse expound upon economics. (There really was a Herbert Marcuse.)

We can enjoy the spoofs, from the singing cowboy to the sword-and-sandal drama to the Esther Williams-like aquatic ballet. If that’s really Channing Tatum singing and tap-dancing through a sailors-on-leave musical, he has my admiration. But shouldn’t these sequences take us somewhere?

The Coens have been unusually sloppy this time. No production head would call in religious leaders to advise him about a screenplay when all but two scenes of the film have been shot. No studio chief would suggest shoving a cowboy actor without training into a picture where he’d obviously fail.

They don’t seem to know how they want us to take Eddie, either. Is he a comic figure? A noble stiff doing the best he can to entertain America at the start of the paranoiac Red Scare? He seems likable mainly because almost everyone else is a fool (especially Baird), a twitchy mess (Frances McDormand as a film editor) or scum (Tilda Swinton as the twin gossipmongers).

The focus shifts midway through to Hobie Doyle, the cowboy singer shoved into the Noel Coward-style comedy. Alden Ehrenreich, who seems to be channeling young Audie Murphy, plays this buckaroo-out-of-water with integrity and warmth; it’s a memorable performance, partly because other actors aren’t allowed to dig beneath surfaces and end up simpering or eye-rolling. (This is the kind of movie where one actor lisps unintelligibly to get cheap laughs.)

The Coens do edit skillfully under the name “Roderick Jaynes,” deftly parodying genres they grew up watching on TV in the 1960s. Roger Deakins, the great cinematographer who has established a futility record for Academy Awards – 13 nominations, no wins – shoots every scene aptly, from the supersaturated color of the water ballet to the shadowy film noir moment in a studio fixer’s office.

Speaking of fixers, the real Eddie Mannix held that vile job for decades at MGM. He hauled stars out of drunk tanks, bought off police, arranged abortions, suppressed newspaper stories, slandered and threatened people who might bring the studio bad publicity. Why the Coens would attach his name to a decent character at an invented studio remains anybody’s guess. I didn’t care enough to make one.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Hail, Caesar!

Cast: Josh Brolin, Alden Ehrenreich, George Clooney, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton.

Writers-directors-producers-editors: Joel and Ethan Coen.

Length: 106 minutes.

Rating: PG-13 (some suggestive content, smoking).