Hail Caesar, directed by the Coen Brothers, is a strange sort of film that is both incredibly polished but ultimately unsatisfying. Populated, as many of the brothers’ films are, by odd and quirky individuals, the film seeks to amuse the audience by having attention focused on the claustrophobic world of the studio during an age where studio control was at a particularly high point. The film itself has a mood of both irony and sincerity that are in tension with each other, in that it wishes to critique the past as well as have a feeling of nostalgia about it, and wishes to affirm the power of films (including itself) and the filmmaking process even as it exposes the unreality and unseemly aspects that are underneath it, including the scandalous behavior of stars and directors and studios and even as it deals somewhat gently with questions of Communism and religion. The result is a film that seems deeply conflicted about whether it wants to undercut nostalgia or encourage it, a film that is suffused with both love and criticism, and a film that appears to want to have it both ways, as an example of contemporary cynicism  and dirtiness as well as a genuine homage to crappy films of a complicated period in cinematic history.
The film’s plot is straightforward and enjoyable enough. George Clooney plays a famous star and a philandering husband in a terrible Roman extravaganza who manages to get kidnapped by a cabal of Communists. Josh Brolin stars as a tough studio fixer who attempts to keep stars out of trouble and acting according to their contracts and who ends up going to confession every single day, burdened by a sense of conflict about the direction his life is to take. Alden Ehrenreich plays a terrible cowboy actor who struggles to expand his range under a director who is being accused of sodomy by one of the Communist plotters and a former protege of his. The film points out the exploitative class structure of Hollywood films in the manner of, say, Sullivan’s Travels, but does so in a much less edifying way. It is a reminder that we cannot truly go back to the past so long as we remain ourselves, and that a look at the past is always a look at an alien country, one we have become estranged from by the passage of time that moves inexorably away, no matter how much we may be fond of it, or how much unfinished business that time has.
So, if you watch this film, will you like it? That depends. If you enjoy a film that has very odd people in it, spouting dialogue that is knowingly beneath their capabilities and deliberately selling themselves short in a plot that takes itself too seriously and deals with matters of politics and religion that it ultimately cannot treat entirely seriously enough, that is a pleasant way to waste an hour and a half of time to see people who are obviously very chummy with each other, then there are certainly many worse ways to spend one’s time. Yet at the same time this film is a lot like the sort of films it both honors and lampoons with in it, a film that is a product of its time, a lesser effort from a studio system that still takes itself too seriously and is too wrapped up in its narrow provincial and parochial attitudes to see the genuine worth of culture when it is produced with love. There are some amusing song and dance numbers, some shots of scenes that are done over and over again for laughs, some dialogue parroted from people who appear to be less than the brightest of bulbs caught up in matters above their competence, but this is a film that will likely not be well-remembered at all in a few years. It will quickly be a line on someone’s IMDB page, the sort of film that is the product of an age just as bad as the one it seeks to make fun of an entirely too smug and self-satisfied manner. This film is the product of people who know enough to know that the films they are mocking are terrible, but who do not know enough to realize that they are not doing any better themselves, an effort that is too arch to be treated with the indulgence it requires to be thoroughly enjoyed.
 See, for example: