George Clooney in 'Hail, Caesar!'

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There is nothing more serious than comedy, as we know from Dante and Chekhov. Read The Divine Comedy and divine eternal truths about human hope and folly. Read The Cherry Orchard, named “a comedy” by its author, to plumb the depths of tragic pathos. So, at their best, with the Coen brothers. Fargo was a comic masterpiece about crime, greed and delusion. No Country for Old Men was a farce about killing, horror and despair.

Sadly, Hail, Caesar! doesn’t hit these giddy heights of poetry-in-paradox. Too often it’s a comedy that’s only a comedy. The chortles in this screwball salute to 1950s Hollywood, though numerous enough, don’t go deep and barely hang together. As we flit between soundstages at “Capitol Pictures” — its hardworking head of production (Josh Brolin) plate-spinning half-a-dozen simultaneous pictures — we glimpse the Western, the drawing-room comedy, the aquatic musical extravaganza (Scarlett Johansson standing in, or swimming in, for Esther Williams), the religious epic set in Roman times. George Clooney, in centurion duds, plays that film’s star. Clooney’s character, in the Coens’ main subplot, later falls into the kidnapping hands of a Hollywood communist cell.

Midway through this erratically mirthful movie, we start clutching at straws hoping one might be a cleft stick holding a message. Perhaps Hail, Caesar!’s moral is that utopias are dangerous? As in: “Don’t look for messianic answers to life’s messy answerlessness. Not in Christ, not in Marx, least of all in the kitsch wish-fulfilments of Tinseltown.”

But themes and wisdoms have little hope of survival in this extended sketch revue. The Romans clump about in their backlot Italy, with overvoice narration by a plummy Michael Gambon (best in show). A gormless young cowboy star (Alden Ehrenreich) is bounced into the drawing-room comedy, to the horror of style-fastidious English director Ralph Fiennes. Channing Tatum hoofs a dance number. Stressed-out studio boss Brolin bursts a figurative blood vessel or two. Think of Altman’s The Player; mix it with random pages of Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon; shake and serve. That’s the screenplay. We hold the Coens in such esteem that mere fun — even if better sustained than this — doesn’t seem enough. O brothers, where, on this occasion, were ye?

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