Afterward sweetmmeblue commented that I tend not to like Coen Brothers films. I think my expectations were set very high way back in the Raising Arizona days and everything since then has failed to live up to that. There are certainly a lot of Coen works I haven't seen, but I've been pretty consistently disappointed by what I have.
This is a film about films, as produced in the strongarm-studio era of Hollywood 1951. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a hard-working, good-hearted head of a studio that's both churning out product and managing its stable of celebrities while fending off nosy press and dealing with its stars' foibles, including drunkenness, infidelity, and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. That the movie succeeds at all is due to the cast's stellar performances in their stereotyped roles.
George Clooney's Baird Whitlock is the central acting character, and he's a stereotype. He drinks too much, sleeps around, and tells hoary tales of other actors. He does one unexpected thing the entire movie (which I won't spoil) and in the end it amounts to nothing.
Alden Ehrenreich is Hobie Doyle, the stereotype of a looks-good, sings-well, can't-act cowboy-acrobat performer. He's just genuinely nice, and the funny accent thing is part of the stereotype. He gets paired up by the studio with a Carmen Miranda-alike stereotype, and we get to watch him doing stereotypical rope tricks.
Ralph Fiennes is Laurence Laurentz, and he's the stereotype of the closeted pooftah director, intent on translating Broadway hits into faithful on-screen presentations. He's stereotypically fussy about his clothing and speech - isn't that what closeted homosexuals are all like? Ugh.
Scarlett Johansson is DeeAnna Moran, the stereotype bad-girl starlet. On screen for her looks and wholesome (blonde, buxom) image acting in stereotypical Busby Berkley-esque films. Of course, off screen she's promiscuous and has gone through two stereotypically useless husbands already.
Well, you get the idea. The film seems determined to pile one stereotype on top of another. Even minor characters are presented this way. In the one scene of Mannix at home, his adoring and dutiful wife has kept dinner warm for him and when he starts to discuss his job quandries with her, she tells him, "Well of course you know best, dear." Ugh.
Maybe this is supposed to be funny? Maybe the Coens are trying to get us to see how dumb all these 65-year-old stereotypes are and laugh at it? I didn't think it was particularly funny - in fact I found myself cringing at several points - nor did the audience seem to emit more than a polite chuckle now and then.
The plot, such as it is, kind of winds and meanders, giving us plenty of time to see everyone in their stereotypical performances. And they all smoke. There's a movie, it needs its star (Whitlock) to finish the climactic scene. But he goes missing, because... well, more stereotypes.
I did enjoy Tilda Swinton doubling as the twin sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker. Swinton plays them both as versions of ridiculous gossip columnists and the wardrobe director clearly had a blast costuming Swinton's tall, thin frame in a variety of awesome Modernist 50s-era fashions. She tries very hard to be comic relief and I can't fault Swinton for the fact that the script just doesn't give her any good material.