First Screening. February 2016.
There’s so much shit going on in Hail, Caesar! that it is easy to get lost in all the hubbub. Not that there is very deep meaning in anything going on – this isn’t an awesome intellectual powerhouse that The Big Lebowski (1998)) or O Brother Where Art Thou (2001) was. But the stories alternated in front of you almost make you think some of them are tied together instead of giving you a pretty accurate picture of where America was in the early 1950’s. First you have Baird Whitlock (A George Clooney-like actor played by George Clooney) getting kidnapped by Communists, DeeAnna Moran (an Ethel Merman-type played by Scarlet Johansson) resisting urges from the Studio to marry a man so her baby won’t be born out of wedlock, working actor cowboy Hobie Doyle (a 1950’s Tom Mix played by Alden Ehrenreich) wanting to play the studio game of fame while trying not to seem ridiculous or stupid and this doesn’t include Channing Tatum’s devoted Communist, Ralph Fiennes’ Laurence Olivier-like stage-turned-director or Tilda Swinton’s turn as both twin sister columnists out for the story scoop or each other’s blood. In other words: it’s your standard Coen Brothers variety show, only this time it’s funny.
Now, I like the Coen Brothers, I really, really do, mainly for a string of early hits from Blood Simple (1984) to The Big Lebowski which as a kid I found really compelling and as an adult I found reason to go back and enjoy. This is usually how Hollywood is supposed to work: a visually stimulating film sucks you in and the story sells you an interesting point of view that you can agree or not agree with. The Coens are masters at the former but really don’t care about the latter, preferring instead to pack their films with interesting characters that ramble on about mundane items that keep you holding your gut (“This game determines who enters the next Round-Robin, am I wrong?”). This leads to a string of more than interesting stories from Miller’s Crossing (1987) to No Country for Old Men (2007) that pass as dramas and Fargo (1996) and Burn After Reading (2008) that pass as comedies. And while we can say they have rare talent in a formula that would be impossible for the overwhelming majority of Hollywood we can also say that some of their projects have just left me fucking dumbfounded and shaking my head. First, I apparently am the only person who hates both Barton Fink (1991) and O Brother and I really don’t get Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) but I’ll be damned if anyone can ever explain to me what the hell they were thinking with A Serious Man (2009): a film that you apparently can only understand if you grew up Jewish in Minnesota in the late 1960’s…with Richard Kind as your uncle.
Thankfully this zeroed in experience is not present in Hail, Caesar! Instead, all of the stories above are weaved around Eddie Mannix, (flawlessly played by Josh Brolin) the fictional Head of Production of Capitol Pictures based on a real man but unlike him in very stark ways. Mannix is a good man, with bad problems to solve, and why he handles all of them himself is the only pause you can give in this film: no capable producers or middlemen such as there are in Hollywood – especially in the ‘50s when one of the problems was there were too many. Mannix here provides the moral center and the string around which all are tied and turn in turn much like an amusement park maypole ride with chairs. And all of them tell you just a little bit about Hollywood and America in the ‘50’s, but not too much.
First is Whitlock’s kidnapping, which halts an expensive epic filming on the studio’s endless rows of soundstages. The film, Hail, Caesar!, could be Ben-Hur (1959) or The Ten Commandments (1956). Whitlock is ostensibly taken by a group of former Hollywood employees who have been denied jobs in the industry based on their politics – they’re Communists or were Communists or were accused of being Communists or identified as someone who was, were or might be a Communist. Whitlock’s kidnapping will net them a cool 100K, a little low, even for the ‘50’s, but that’s right in line with people who supposedly don’t place a high value on money. The group in the film possibly portrays blacklisted artists in the ‘50’s more accurately than most. They are not really a threat unless you don’t like Fisher Stevens, huge mustachioed men looking similar to Stalin or Trotsky, or little cucumber sandwiches to go along with discussions on class struggle. Their most menacing member is Channing Tatum, who improves his impossibly perfect career by showcasing his tap dancing talents and his Timberlake sense of humor with Roger Moore-like quip/look drops and outlandishly physical gay humor. All of the Communists look a bit effete, some of them very Jewish, and I suppose that wouldn’t be out of the ordinary of the image of them in the 1950’s in general or in fact. Like the real blacklisted victims, these people are not really a threat to the U.S. Go pick on someone else.
In the middle of this is Moran’s Busby-Berkeley-like water adventure mimicking ejaculation using the representation of a large phallus (not a stretch considering Johansson’s image) and her supposed need to keep her public image clean by giving away her child to someone she can adopt it from later. This will (I guess) satisfy the studio that they are not paying a slut to smile while being covered in ejaculate but it really does convey the absolute control and in some cases absolutely brutal responses conservative Hollywood engineered at the time to keep their bankable stars clean and thus the families to keep coming to the theatre. There’s even a scene where Mannix discusses the script of Hail, Caesar! with four spiritual leaders (three Christians and a Jew) in which they discuss whether or not a reasonable religious leader would find anything in the film offensive. This is easily the most hysterical portion of the film: a discussion of the nature of God and ultimately why the objections of the Jews don’t matter (at least in a depiction of Christ). Isn’t this America? The great clean-up spreads to the impossibly impeccable Tilda Swinton playing both a Hedda Hopper and a Louella Parsons whom Mannix has to man-handle like a fork-tongued serpent and like juggling his various movie productions must juggle handling celebrity journalists he must respect and feed like very dangerous zoo animals (as evidenced by the feathers in Swinton’s hats) that could turn and devour him at any moment. Moran is the first hint of this great effort of image and the minute she opens her mouth you understand the duality of what Mannix is trying to do. I’ve always known Johansson to be an amazing actress, but I was drop-jawed when she spouted out dialogue as if she was from deep in Brooklyn. Even her shoulders seemed to hint at the specific neighborhood or specific block. Was that East Flatbush or Flatlands? Maybe Marine Park? The greatly unfair sexual politics abound from her point of view showcase how oppressive the ‘50’s were to women despite great gains made in the previous three decades. Who better to point out the absurdity and hypocrisy than Johansson?
We can expect the Coens to rope in great performances from great actors like Johansson and Fiennes’ hysterical beyond patient director working with an outside-his-comfort-zone actor but the show stealer is that actor himself: Ehrenreich’s heavily understated Hobie Doyle. The Coens have tapped into the cowboy element in Hollywood history before. Not just their surprising and outstanding remake of True Grit (2012) but The Big Lebowski is one of several of their films that explore the culture and the legacy of the west. They understand perhaps as most today don’t that most films before 1960 were in fact westerns. Most TV shows were westerns. Most comic books, most pulp novels, most everything from the closing of the frontier to the Leone films that practically destroyed the genre were based on or explored these western themes. Hobie is just a guy, like Moran is just a girl, from the parts of America that superstars are not supposed to come from. Like Moran dealing with relationship issue, Hobie is dealing with career issues; namely accelerating it. His films are popular but his acting style is more suited to chaps and a horse than a tux and a ballroom as evidenced at the hour mark. But off the set, Hobie is the guy taking Mannix seriously, the guy on the alert when he sees the loaded McGuffin and, I might add, seemingly the only guy who doesn’t mind taking a Latino out on a date and charming her up with seemingly no intention to sleep with her. The girl, Veronica Osorio, is just as outstanding and although this is a film loaded with on-screen chemistry Ahrenreich and Osorio steal an enormous amount of attention for what little screen time they have. Hobie is the guy who ultimately saves the day, and I guess it’s time to talk about what that means.
There’s no doubt that Mannix is running a madhouse. That’s the movie business. And there’s no doubt that everything associated with what Mannix is doing touches some sort of off-color aspect of American society (my only severe criticism here would be the dramatic lack of color in this film if you get my meaning). But…and this is an important but…it seems as if all of the characters – even Whitlock’s captors – don’t really have a bone to pick aren’t really evil at heart. Mannix struggles over the smallest of sins, Johansson wants to find that perfect someone to make a wrong a right, Whitlock is just hapless and wants to feel for the little guy, and Hobie and Veronica are the couple you want next door. Remember, this is a Coen Brothers film. There’s no leg in the wood chipper, no panty clad thief stealing huggies from a mini-mart, no Wu micturating on the Dude’s rug, and no psychopath using a high powered compressed air tool to murder people on remote Texas highways. In reality, not even the Communists in the film are bad guys. The most ‘bad guy’ you get here are Tilda Swinton’s twins threatening to spread rumors of sodomy and a Lockheed executive who wants to take away all of Mannix’s weirdness for an easy job with an easy future and an easy retirement. This is a landmark for a Coen Brothers film. Mannix finally agrees with his confessor when says “it just feels right.” And though I can’t exactly pin it on anything in particular despite analyzing the Coen’s environment of 50’s Hollywood, so does this film.