Saying that you’re about to watch a Coen brothers movie can mean a lot of different things. Most filmmakers (or in this case, filmmaking pairs) come to cement their own styles throughout their careers, but few manage to cast such a wide net of genre-busting disparity between movies while still holding on to a distinct air all their own like these two Minnesota brothers have.
It’s like each of their films has its own unique configuration on a wider Coens equalizer. Dialing in two knobs for sudden explosive violence and subtly buffoonish comedy could result in “Fargo” just as much as it could end up as “Barton Fink.” Drop the violence for melancholy and spin the dials again, and you could end up with “Inside Llewyn Davis” or “A Serious Man.”
The brothers have managed to make most of these combinations work in their distinct and memorable ways, but there have been a few duds along the way. With its stumble through a series of vignettes on the eccentricities of 1950s Hollywood, “Hail, Caesar!,” the duo’s latest film, falls into this lackluster camp.
Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, the studio production fixer who at once takes up the most screen time but manages to fall into the backdrop against the outlandish personalities he’s paired with in nearly every scene. Brolin is very much playing the straight man here against a menagerie of clownish Hollywood types (including rubber-faced George Clooney in a near-constant state of befuddlement as Baird Whitlock, leading man).
Mannix totters through a variety show of sendups to old Hollywood as he searches for Whitlock, who has been kidnapped by a group referring to themselves only as “the future.” His search is pretty lackadaisical, with the Coens taking time to guide Mannix through musical numbers, synchronized swimming and glimpses into the various scandals happening on the studio lot along the way.
These sendups feature some not-quite-short-enough-to-be-cameo but not-quite-long-enough-to-be-supporting turns from Coen regulars like Frances McDormand and some newcomers like Channing Tatum and Scarlett Johansson. Everyone delivers on mark, but no particular gag or throwback seems to really stand out, and they all seem stitched together in a way that makes them individually forgettable and together muddled.
Amid the generally disappointing surroundings, there are some decidedly golden moments, most of them belonging to Alden Ehrenreich as singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle. His lassoing skills and ode to a lazy ol’ moon are some of the funniest and most playful parts of the film, and I’m really hoping he becomes a recurring Coen collaborator.
It’s far from a terrible movie, and it does have some genuine laughs and strong performances, but “Hail, Caesar!” is closer to the brothers’ worst than it is to their best. That fact speaks to the strength of their wider catalogue as much as it does to the disappointment that this latest film brings. “Hail, Caesar!” sits more in the filler section of a Coen movie marathon than it is required viewing.
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