If you weren’t sold on the trailer of the new Coen Brothers movie, ‘Hail, Casear!’, let me just say that the movie is about five other movies (within this movie) that aren’t necessarily great movies.
The year is 1951, and Hollywood studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) must contend with juggling lots of movies and stars, and the headaches that accompany both, as well as the abduction of one of his leading men, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) by some communists.
The real-life Eddie Mannix did not run a studio but he was a behind-the-scenes fixer at MGM (here, he runs Capitol Studios – the capitalist machine, get it?). While ‘Hail, Caesar!’ is an uproarious comedy that goes down like matinee popcorn, there is more going on here than there might seem (as usual with the Coen Brothers). It doesn’t have the serious weight of, um, ‘A Serious Man’, or ‘No Country For Old Men’, but it is still about something.
In the theatrical trailer, we see George Clooney forget one key word in his line. “Faith”. And that, to me, is what this picture is mainly about. It’s about our faith in believing the stories that Hollywood tells us – not just the stories within the movies, but the lies that studios tell us about the stars. There is also the faith that the stars have in the studios and those who run it. The faith communists placed in their nonsensical economic ideology. The faith Baird has in abductors – they sell “it” to him, whatever “it” is, and Baird is a movie star who wants to be liked by everyone so he is easily manipulated. It is about Eddie’s faith in the business he is in and he is left having to make a choice between work that is easy and work that is rewarding. It’s about religious faith – the movie is bookended with scenes of Eddie, a devout Roman Catholic, in a confessional booth (he appears to go to confession daily with the most insignificant of things to confess – “I smoked two, maybe three cigarettes behind my wife’s back”). And, of course, the prestige picture ‘Hail, Caesar!’ within the movie – the sort of religious spectacle studios used to churn out in that era (a classic Coen Brothers scene involves Eddie convening a Greek Orthodox priest, a Protestant Minister, a Catholic Priest, and a rabbi to discuss whether the depiction of Christ in the movie will offend any reasonable person with religious beliefs).
My favorite of all cinematographers, the great Roger Deakins, and a team of highly proficient art directors riff on Old Hollywood form and style by creating the studio of our dreams, painstakingly recreating actual movie moments (Scarlett Johansson is unmistakably channeling an aquatic Esther Williams, and Channing Tatum’s tap-dancing brings to mind Gene Kelly), and in making this movie look like something from that era. If you digitally composite Gene Kelly over Channing Tatum, or Esther Williams over Scarlett Johansson, I think you’ll barely notice a difference. Deakins even makes the typically murky and confined space of a confessional booth visually appealing by having the light streak through the slats.
All the cast members here are clearly having a blast. Tilda Swinton is fantastic playing twin gossip columnists Thora Thacker and Thessaly Thacker – this has to be a callback to Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. The real discovery here is Alden Ehrenreich in a star-making performance whose Hobie Doyle is the Roy Rogers counterpart. Hobie is the singing cowboy figure forced into becoming a “serious” actor for his first dramatic-starring role. I’m completely unaware of any real-life corollaries between Roy Rogers and Hobie Doyle, but Hobie is one of the most memorable characters the Coens have ever created. The film’s funniest moment involves Ralph Fiennes’ Laurence Laurentz (the George Cukor conduit) directing Hobie in a period drama; needless to say, the oratory lesson does not go well. Oh, and there’s Jonah Hill as the fall guy lawyer Joseph Silverman – he is the guy who meets the minimum requirements of personhood; if a movie star kills someone, they need not worry because Joseph will step in and accept responsibility. I’d love to see a feature-length film focusing on any of these wacko screwball side characters. If there’s a drawback to the ‘Hail, Caesar!’, it is that there is an overabundance of outstanding characters, none of whom we get to spend sufficient time with.
The pace never stops. Until it does. ‘Hail, Caesar!’, like many of Coen’s other films, ends abruptly. Some viewers may find the ending unfulfilling. We get a day in a life glimpse of Old Hollywood. But, we already know that this is coming to an end: it won’t be long before stars begin to run their own production companies, and the studios relinquish ownership of theaters, and every American home has a television. There wasn’t a smooth transition or metamorphosis. It just ended.
Where does ‘Hail, Caesar!’ rank in the Coen Brothers canon? I don’t think it’s an instant classic the way ‘Fargo’, ‘No Country For Old Men’, or ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is. But, like ‘The Big Lebowski’, it could become something of a cult classic – a picture that was misunderstood upon initial release, but widely embraced as a masterwork years later. Based on what I saw in ‘Hail, Caesar!’, I can’t tell if the Coen Brothers hate the movies or love the movies. Or if they love the movies but hate the studio system. One of the reasons I love the movies is because every year (or two or three years), I get to see a Coen Brothers movie. QED.