Hail Caesar is far more than a parody of or homage to Hollywood, more than a period piece (1951), more than a vehicle for cameo appearances by various stars, and less a series of set pieces than the trailer implies.
Forget the tepid New York Times review — this is a good film. There are pleasures here well beyond recognizing scenes and lines from classic films, and beyond the clever, subtle sexual innuendo in dialog and dance.
One viewing is never enough with a good film, either to understand it or to get all of its pleasures, or for that matter to comprehend all of the dialog.
One viewing of Hail Caesar is more than enough to suggest that this film is a coherent depiction of our need to believe (a need that Hollywood is eager to satisfy) and a fresh take on the old, old story of appearance vs. reality.
A dim-witted star’s sudden devotion to a utopian political idea parallels his character’s sudden devotion to Jesus, and he is dressed in Roman garb at all times. Such credulities are sharply drawn in contrast to other characters’ cynicism.
The shifts back and forth between the real-time plot and sound stage scenes are marvelous, with even the real-time actions being depicted in Hollywood style, evoking, for example, film noir, WWII films, and Alfred Hitchcock. All this with a hard-boiled detective voice over suggesting Raymond Chandler.
To be honest, I would have preferred briefer depictions of Hollywood musical cliches, the Esther Williams/Busby Berkeley number and the dancing sailors (echoing South Pacific’s “There is nothing like a dame.”).
But those scenes are pleasures, too, reminders that we are all suckers for spectacles, as we are all suckers for ideas.