Film: The Coens lose control of a screwball comedy

George Clooney plays a Hollywood star kidnapped by disgruntled screenwriters

Hail Caesar! (12A, 106 mins, ★★)

In recent years the Coen brothers have barely put a frame wrong with a run of form that includes the superb Jewish black comedy, A Serious Man, and their stately remake of True Grit. Now though, they’ve hit us with a glitzy, star-studded dud.

Set in 1950s Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! spins a yarn about the making of an epic celluloid version of the story of Christ. Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix is the studio fixer trying to keep the production from falling apart when leading man Baird Whitlock, played witlessly by George Clooney, is kidnapped by a gang of disgruntled communist screenwriters.

The setting is one that should have been a doozy for the Coens. This is a period and place they’ve brilliantly illuminated in the past with Barton Fink. With that film, and 2013’s wonderful Inside Llewyn Davis, a freewheelin’ tale of a struggling folk singer in 1960s New York, they brought the chosen eras to life with a sincerity that underpinned the numerous comic left turns. With Hail, Caesar!, unfortunately, a similar seriousness is not replicated, and instead the Coens’ penchant for screwball wackiness is unleashed and indulged to the great detriment of the film at large.

There is an attempt to imbue proceedings with religious conviction, bookended as it is with Mannix visiting his priest for what appears to be a daily confession. But the weightiness feels tacked on, rather than an integral, organic element.

Mannix is trying to decide whether to carry on working in movies or take a big-bucks gig with a nasty corporation. The Coens want us to believe this conundrum reflects the studio man’s struggles with faith, but it’s an idea that doesn’t quite add up. Besides, the rest of the film is so glib that it’s hard to take this earnest strand very seriously anyway.

Alongside the pastiche of the sword and sandals epic, there are spoofs of Westerns and musicals, and an array of oddball characters come and go. A nauseating smugness pervades the atmosphere, while the spoofs and gags are, in the main, just not funny enough. The central plot also plays out so half-heartedly that the whole thing starts runnning out of steam from about the halfway point.

There is, at least, an excellent turn from Ralph Fiennes as a fastidious English director desperately trying to keep his cool with a dumb young star, and there’s a brilliant vignette involving religious representatives including a Catholic priest, a rabbi and a Copt getting into a heated discussion about the religious content of Mannix’s movie. These flashes of brilliance are, sadly, not enough to rescue what is a rare clanger from the Coens.