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'Hail, Caesar!' struggles to hit a rhythm in studio-era Hollywood
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George Clooney stars as Baird Whitlock in "Hail, Caesar!" - photo by Josh Terry
"HAIL, CAESAR!" 2 stars George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Josh Brolin, Jonah Hill, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton; PG-13 (suggestive content and smoking); in general release

In Hail, Caesar! Josh Brolin plays an old-school Hollywood studio executive named Eddie Mannix. On several occasions, we see Mannix sitting in private screenings, backlit by a projector as he watches half-finished productions from his studio, Capitol Pictures. Too often, Hail, Caesar! feels like one of those movies: Fresh and bubbling with personality in places, but lacking that final piece that will bring the picture together.

Over the years, Joel and Ethan Coen have brought a variety of worlds to life, always with their signature offbeat sensibility. O Brother, Where Art Thou? took us to the Depression-era South, Fargo skimmed the icy tundra of North Dakota, and Raising Arizona placed its oddball caper in the deserts of the Southwest.

For Hail, Caesar! the Coens take us to the Hollywood of the early 1950s, awash in saturated color and steeped in the studio system that graced the screen with regular epics such as The Ten Commandments. Its a world of potential, but its unlikely that Hail, Caesar! will be listed among the Coens greater triumphs.

We navigate this world through the eyes of Mannix, who is responsible for pretty much everything that goes on at Capitol Pictures. As he pulls strings and puts out fires and greases skids, we see a tangled web of personalities and agendas.

A movie star known for cowboy movies (Alden Ehrenreich) gets recruited for a stuffy drama helmed by an even stuffier director (Ralph Fiennes). A starlet (Scarlett Johansson) frets over how to handle an unplanned pregnancy. And in the middle of it all, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the studios new Bible epic, gets kidnapped by a group of Communist screenwriters.

Mannix wrestles with issues of his own as well. Hes a man of faith who makes daily visits to confession, fretting over the fact that hes hiding his smoking habit from his trusting wife. As he looks at the craziness around him, we sense that hes a relic of a dying era. An engineering firm comes at him with an offer to leave Hollywood and join the future, but he cant bring himself to leave his world behind.

The Coens augment Mannixs world with a variety of performance numbers, such as a synchronized swimming act with Johansson and a musical song and dance from Channing Tatum, who plays another actor named Burt Gurney. It goes a long way toward bringing the world to life, but Hail, Caesar! never quite hits a consistent rhythm, and a film that feels marketed to be laugh-out-loud funny rarely breaks beyond amused smiles.

Clooney may play the movie star, but Brolin is the anchor that keeps Hail, Caesar! from going too far off its rails. Seen through his eyes, the film works as a weary insider meditation on the craziness of the movie business and the pressures of a classic family man trying to function in a gossip-crazed world that lacks his moral center. Mannix almost feels like a human pivot-point between where Hollywood was and what it has become today.

Like many Coen films, Hail, Caesar! muses on religion and philosophy (in one early scene, Brolin tries to manage a group of religious leaders as they argue about the depiction of Jesus Christ in the studios new epic). But while the film explores pre-Red Scare Communism and Big Screen Christianity, it feels like its still reaching for a definitive statement.

Any new film from the Coens comes with a high standard, and fans will recognize the filmmakers signature style. Hail, Caesar! has just enough highs to remind you of the Coens singular voice but not enough to make the material resonate.

"Hail, Caesar!" is rated PG-13 for suggestive content and smoking; running time: 100 minutes