The Coen bothers have a near-perfect track record. They’ve never made a “bad’ film, but once in a blue moon they don’t quite nail it. The Ladykillers, The Man Who Wasn’t There, arguably Raising Arizona. (I don’t agree with the alleged consensus view that Intolerable Cruelty is a stumble — I think it’s wall-to-wall hilarious.) In any event it gives me no pleasure (in fact it almost hurts) to report that another mitigated Coen misfire is now upon us. Hail, Caesar! (Universal, 2.5) is a zany re-imagining of early 1950s Hollywood that I loved in script form. This part is funny and that part is cool, but the whole never lifts off.

The smarty-pants dialogue has verve and flair. The attitudes, haircuts, costumes and production design are all aces. Pic has many elements, in fact, that are sharp and zippy and loads of fun (including a sailors-shipping-out dance number with Channing Tatum), but it’s spotty and slapdash. Something is missing. Yes, if you ease up on your Coen Bros. expectations Hail, Caesar! is agreeable enough. It’s not slop. It’s apparently much better than the other January and February openers playing right now.

“Why is this not coming together?” I said to myself during the pre-Sundance screening two and a half weeks ago. “The material works on paper and that the Coens are my favorite boys so what the fuck? C’mon, guys…get it together!” Hail, Caesar! is far from a trainwreck but at best it’s a 6.5 or 7. It’s supposed to be one of their knucklehead comedies but while it’s amusing here and there it’s never consistently funny in a follow-through, momentum-building sort of way.

Remember the inspired “Wheezy Joe” bit in Intolerable Cruelty (i.e., the gun mistaken for an inhaler)? There’s nothing in Caesar that comes close to that. If you ask me Inside Llewyn Davis — by any yardstick a downish, somber-attitude film — is funnier in its own studied way. John Goodman‘s back-seat performance as a junkie musician was a stone classic; ditto that “where’s his scrotum?” scene along with the moment when the amiable G.I. folk singer slurps the cereal milk. There are no bits or performances in Hail, Caesar! that deliver on this level.

Hail, Casear! is a satirical take on Hollywood culture around 1950 or ’51. It’s about real-life MGM general manager and vp Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) and how he deals with the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a Robert Taylor-like star during the filming of a Quo Vadis-like Biblical epic called Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ.

MINOR SPOILER WHINERS ALERT: The genius move, for me, is the Coen’s decision to not only cast lefty-commie screenwriters as the kidnappers but depict them as being in league with the Russians — a vision of subversion straight out of the HUAC playbook and the commie-hating minds of John Wayne, Cecil B. DeMille and Adolph Menjou.

Other characters include an aw-shucksy cowboy star in the vein of Gene Autry or Roy Rogers (Alden Ehrenreich), a pair of twin-sister gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton), an Esther Williams-like star (Scarlet Johansson) who’s gotten herself pregnant, a effete director (Ralph Fiennes), etc. Jonah Hill appears in one scene and has maybe three lines — a throwaway. Dolph Lundgren was cast as a Russian submarine commander but either his stuff was never shot or he was cut from the film.

There are two or three clips from films being shot or screened, and they’re all presented in CinemaScope-like widescreen, which of course didn’t appear until 1953 with The Robe and didn’t really kick in on a mainstream basis until ’54. In ’50 and ’51, which is definitely the period given the obvious allusion to Quo Vadis and the Esther Williams echoes, all movies were shot and projected at 1.37 so we’re talking aspect-ratio boners of stunning proportions. For me the failure of the Coens to get this right is shattering.

My initial e-mailed reaction: “Clever and diverting in several portions (Channing’s dance number especially) but it feels oddly thin and scattershot. Doesn’t entirely work. Which is surprising as I loved the script. And the script is good. But somehow the film misses the groove. It’s set in ’50 or ’51 but clips of Ehrenreich’s western are projected in Scope — a huge technical error. I love the commie screenwriter stuff but again, it never quite lifts off. Would I pan it? Not bluntly — it’s too clever and sophisticated. And it’s the Coens! And I love the droll tone. But something’s missing. You can tell early on that it’s not clicking.”

A critic friend suggested a couple of weeks ago that the problem has a lot to do with the conception of Brolin’s Mannix character. “It feels odd is that the Coens have centered the film on a guy with a real-life notorious fixer — a day-to-day studio manaaer who was in with the cops, covered stuff up stuff with the police, reassigning blame for crimes, et. al. — and make him into a veritable saint, a savior, in fact, which parallels the plight of Jesus in Clooney’s film-within-a-film — who makes life better for everyone around him and whose worst confessions to his priest concern smoking. Sure, there’s a small irony there, but I don’t really get the point and I can’t imagine audiences will latch onto this guy.” Here’s the critic’s just-popped review.

And yet the Coens’ satire of the sanctimoniousness of studio-funded Biblical films is spot-on. Clooney’s Whitlock delivers a reaction shot to the presence of Yeshua of Nazareth that precisely mimics the famous “no water for him!” scene in Ben-Hur. There are many bits that work on this level, or which provide agreeable diversion. If only the whole delivered like the parts.

The Rotten Tomatoes easy-lay brigade has given Hail, Caesar! a 76% rating….fine. Slate‘s notoriously bent David Ehrlich has given it a rave, calling it “one of their very best” — that should tell you plenty.