At Least Three Good Scenes And No Bad Ones…?
DIRECTORS: JOEL AND ETHAN COEN/2016
Despite regularly tepid response from common moviegoers, the Hollywood film industry has proven wholly unable to not make movies about itself. With Hail, Caesar!, Joel and Ethan Coen have finally gotten around to it in a comedic way. Between their clear and sharp devotion to film history, which permeates all of their work, and their trademark bent toward stylized eccentricities, it should come as no surprise that this film is both a head-scratching conundrum and a barrel of oddball laughs.
“Caesar!” is indeed a very different movie about movies, even as it falls in line with Hollywood’s long-standing apparent need to self-criticize.
It’s, what – 1950? Something like that, give or take a few years. Being every bit as indulgent as Hollywood itself was at its studio-system pinnacle, the Coens have concocted a loosely woven fabric of pastiche and polarity, but without patronizing. It’s a sideways history lesson in disguise, as long as you’re not there to learn anything. It is effectively the anti-Trumbo – not in ideology so much as in intelligence.
As a well-meaning studio chief ramps up to push his biggest, grandest production of them all – Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ – to widespread box office glory, a number of increasing, greater threats loom in the periphery: Corporate takeover of studios. Communism. Communist witch-hunting. The hydrogen bomb. TV. Not to mention the kind of religious apathy that would soon render the old school Biblical epic extinct, and irradiate films like this one with a kind of baseline cynicism about it all.
While not the dark venture into soul-eating dread that their previous film-industry dissection Barton Fink is, Hail, Caesar! is nonetheless biting in its own roundabout way. It does indeed look and sound like Trumbo, in all its spotless period detail that appears as though it was just assembled yesterday (because it was), sans that film’s forced “reality” and ham-fisted clarity. It’s built on a familiar bed of classic movie-biz mockery in which studio backlots are delusional bubble worlds of colliding nonsense, “pretending” as big business (Cowboys over here, chorus girls over there! Crew guys on lunch break and wardrobe racks of faux-period garments going passed palm trees!), all ruled with an iron fist by the tightly-wound studio chief. Sure, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure did all of this better, and sure, the dream-factory-as-workaday-absurdism is old hat, but it’s not any less true. Except, the (fake) studio of Hail, Caesar! (Capitol Pictures – same as Barton Fink) isn’t quite that colorfully whack-a-doodle. And the studio chief sure isn’t your standard issue harrumphing mogul.
The cast is a formidable ensemble made up of what Coen fans can, in this context, consider “the usual gang of idiots” and “a few new surprises” (to borrow from Mad Magazine and George Lucas, respectively). In true Coen fashion, characters come and go, some conventionally important, others… less so. At this point, most everyone who’s anyone knows how a Coen Brothers’ character speaks and sounds, so even newbies like Jonah Hill, who once lamented their lack of pornography in Superbad, naturally (that is, unnaturally) fall right in line. Perhaps disappointing to some, he doesn’t share a scene with his 21 Jump Street costar Channing Tatum, who wields a more significant role as a contract actor with more going on after hours.
Josh Brolin, a solid screen presence still searching for that one golden breakthrough hit, leads the cast as a guilt-laden Catholic studio head who’s done remarkably little wrong.
He’s the kind of guy who, after spending a day milking any verve out of his big screen Christ epic in the interest of not offending any quadrant of the potential audience, pops into the local confessional to cry over sneaking a cigarette. (“Father I have sinned… It’s been [checks watch] twenty-seven hours since my last confession.”) Maybe when he realizes that calling his crown jewel Jesus movie Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ is about as counter-intuitive as the church proclaiming, say, Donald Trump, he’ll enjoy a moment of clarity. Or not. Brolin, as good as he is, might not have been the best casting choice for this particular milquetoast “fixer” in search of a spine.
George Clooney, however, as a dimwitted superstar actor, owns every scene he shows up in. It helps, of course, that the Coens have decked him out in a Roman centurion outfit complete with strap up sandals and a plumey helmet. Dressing Clooney up this way for the entire running time of the film is the kind of larky vision that may’ve very well spurned Hail, Caesar! into existence in the first place.
Clooney’s Baird Whitlock is a pompous windbag who’s too stupid to be concerned when he finds himself kidnapped by secret film industry Communists.
Their ransom money scheme has to rank among the least consequential criminal plots in film history. That’s a knock on the characters, not the Coens.
Among the several laugh-out-loud moments that pop up in the movie, the single greatest and smartest of them all has to be the realization of the cabal of Red screenwriters, actors, and other assorted talent (some vaguely echoing the real ones) as just the kind of conspiratorial schemers that Joseph McCarthy suspected them to be. In a capitalist culture that is inherently averse to smarts, they are the worst of all worlds – kidnapping, money-grubbing thieves who hold strange meetings to spout intellectual mumbo-jumbo and breed academic intimidation. It’s a rightly preposterous rendering of what the blacklisters were so worried about. When it all filters through the brain of a dimwitted character, it somehow comes out as the most matter-of-factly concise summation of The Way Things Are that this or any movie about movies has to offer. To him, it’s mere chit chat – mentioned on break, forgotten later.
The most visible selling point of Hail, Caesar!, aside from its cast of more stars than are in the heavens, is its recreation of the popular types of films of the era. They are colorful, bouncy, well-choreographed, and familiar. But they are also wrong. They are the kind of recreations of Classic Hollywood that one would expect from someone who doesn’t watch old movies. Scarlett Johansson rises out of the water (dry) as some sort of Esther Williams type in a Busby Berkeley water tank number. But the actress, as good as she can be, doesn’t belong there. And the movie they’re making is simply off in its evocations.
So is the Western that lenses later, featuring a game Alden Ehrenreich as a naive cowboy star. It’s a wagon train of clichés that doesn’t go anywhere. If this weren’t the Coen Brothers – who have demonstrated time and again that they CLEARLY know better – this business would render the whole of Hail, Caesar! a pandering failure that simply didn’t do its homework. But that can’t be right.
Instead, what we seem to have is a vision of Hollywood just accurate enough to be recognizable, but otherwise the imagined version of it – gaudy, vapid, silly, obvious, gay – that ignoramuses assume it to have been. It’s the myth made fact, and the fact made stupider. The meta commentary, if there is one, is that the business and its product, as enamoring as it obviously has been, inspires just such balderdash.
Which, by the way, applies to Hail, Caesar! itself. When outspoken fans of the filmmakers (people who are serious film collectors; film buffs!) emerge from the screening pronouncing it to be “flat” and “a dud”, they’re not 100% wrong. It doesn’t hit like it should, and it’s very difficult to know just who this film is really for. But I for one am glad it got made, blemishes, imperfections, and all. It’s an unsettle hodgepodge, but it’s the Coen’s unsettled hodgepodge, and that’s preferable to most any real-world studio tripe.
And so, as Hollywood continues its long legacy of self flagellation steeped in self congratulation, Hail, Caesar! will be around to be looked upon as, among other things, that duality in a microcosm. The participants will proclaim it by name even while waiting to stab it with their steely knives. Oh heck, someone has to say it: All hail Hail, Casear! If only for opening weekend.