A quarter century after their acrid Barton Fink, Joel and Ethan Coen finally do Hollywood right — or wrong.
Set in 1951, Hail, Caesar! revolves around a credulous leading man (George Clooney) kidnapped by Commies who serve finger sandwiches, and a beset studio head (Josh Brolin) who loves his job nonetheless. Shot in shimmering faux Technicolor, the farce that unfolds is at once fanciful and far-fetched. Along the way, the Coens lampoon movie genres, gossip columnists, Hollywood types and, of course, religion (especially the one they left behind).
All of the actors — Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson — nail it. Alden Ehrenreich is so good as a cowboy actor that I need to see him in something else to decide if he’s really like that. And it turns out Channing Tatum isn’t Magic Mike. He’s Gene Kelly, and his musical number about sailors and dames may be the most exuberant passage in the Coens’ oeuvre.
If it seems like the Coens bite the hand that feeds them, I’d say they’ve nourished Hollywood more than Hollywood has nourished them. Like a movie star, Hail, Caesar! has charisma even when it’s too transparent. But I laughed more than I scowled, and I’m still smiling at a clever movie — more affectionate sendup than satire — that’s as warm and sincere as it is mordant and ridiculous.