“Squint!” the director exhorts megastar Baird Whitlock. “Squint against the grandeur!” Whitlock, gazing upon the crucified body of Christ, does his best, but the director is looking for just the right balance of pathos and inspiration in his face. It’s a tricky balance to find.

Yet “Hail, Caesar!” is a movie all about balance. How will ‘50s Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix (played with uncharacteristic reserve by Josh Brolin) balance his hectic job cleaning up after stars of the screen with his obligations at home? How will Hobie Doyle (a charming Alden Ehrenreich) balance all that he’s learned in Westerns with a salon drama that seems to stretch his talents thin? And, most importantly, how will Capitol Pictures’ big budget drama “Hail, Caesar!” fare when it’s discovered that Baird Whitlock (the always game George Clooney) has gone missing?

Unfortunately, with so many pieces up in the air, quite a few of them hit the floor with a thud. The Coen brothers’ latest effort tries to capture the madcap silliness of some of their earlier efforts, but without enough fully–fleshed-out characters, “Hail, Caesar!” can feel as empty as many of the movies it mocks.

The film focuses primarily on Mannix. Between self-flagellating trips to confession, he must decide whether he’s going to continue working at the studio, as an attractive job offer from Lockheed Martin beckons. All the while, Mannix is contrasted with the Jesus character in the titular picture, a secular saint bearing the cross of his employees, constantly putting the needs of others before his own. Brolin gives Mannix a smoldering façade of assuredness that drops in private moments, letting his professionalism serve as a manifestation of his own moral convictions. As he searches high and low for Whitlock, his competence never comes into question to anyone but himself. In a way, he’s stepped straight out of the movies he helps to produce—square-jawed, selfless, and strong.

Hobie Doyle is the opposite. He’s a golden retriever, as eager to please as he is oblivious to his own shortcomings. But when he performs a few tricks he has up his sleeve, it’s a reminder of why those golden retrievers are so damn popular—they’re a lot of fun to be around. Ehrenreich doesn’t play him as a complete fool, but as a simpleton. His scene with Ralph Fiennes’ pedantic director is perhaps the funniest in a film desperate for laughs.

Now, if you want to see a fool, look no further than George Clooney’s Whitlock. The classic Coen imbecile, the womanizing megastar—Whitlock, that is—needs only the slightest prodding from his kidnappers to accept career suicide, never seeming to understand quite what it is that they’ve pitched to him. Shallow, egotistical, and prone to bouts of inexplicable obedience, Whitlock is an airhead from beginning to end. Clooney, of course, still manages to make him likable. It’s another solid performance from the Coen’s favorite punching bag.

After those three, the rest of the performances are little more than glorified cameos. The marquee features Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, and more, but with only a few scenes here and there, none of the actors take on any sort of significant arc. Frances McDormand and Wayne Knight provide some much-needed laughs, but alas, their time is fleeting.

As usual, the movie looks fantastic. That’ll always be the case with the Coen brothers—they work with technical wizards like Roger Deakins—and their writing is still sharp. “Hail, Caesar!” isn’t their strongest effort, but for these two, even their B+ movies leave other directors scratching their heads, wondering how in the hell those two keep pulling it off.

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