The Coen Brothers’ Marvellous “Hail, Caesar!”
Yes, “Hail, Caesar!” is superb, and it was foreseeably so. The first sign that the next Coen brothers movie would be something special came from the barest bones of advance publicity, revealing that the action is set in Hollywood in the nineteen-fifties and is centered on the doings of a studio fixer named Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). The Coen brothers were born in the nineteen-fifties (Joel in 1954, Ethan in 1957), and a movie that takes place in the fifties is one that sets the stage for their arrival and bears the elements of a personal archeology—the time of their parents’ adulthood before their birth, the time that their parents passed along to them in anecdotes, artifacts, habits, and mores. A movie about Hollywood at that time is also about the Coens’ own childhood mythology. In making a film about Hollywood movies of the early fifties, the Coen brothers are, in effect, seeking to find out where they come from, who they are.
“Hail, Caesar!” is a comedy, and a scintillating, uproarious one, filled with fast and light touches of exquisite incongruity in scenes that have the expansiveness of relaxed precision, performed and timed with the spontaneous authority of jazz. Hollywood has been ripe for lampooning from the start, but, for all the movie’s incisive humor, the Coens don’t so much mock the movie colony as look on with an unusually benign astonishment at the contrast—only superficially a contradiction—between the absurd wonders of the movies that were made at the time and the even more absurd stories of their making.
The Coen brothers are into belief systems—big and seemingly backward ideas that overcome contradictions with a leap of faith—and “Hail, Caesar!” is full of them, from the very first shot, an image of a sculpted Christ on the crucifix. The movie follows Eddie for a very busy day and a half through his official rounds as the head of physical production for Capitol Pictures Studios, sometime in 1951. (The date is seen in the Roman numerals of the credits of a film in première.)
Eddie is a fixer—getting starlets out of self-made jams, threatening and cajoling the press into keeping embarrassing stories out of the news—and his biggest problem is with a movie that’s in production. It’s called “Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ,” a historical-religious drama that’s also a grand vehicle for one of the biggest stars of the day, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who plays a Roman consul, a leader of the persecutors of Jesus who becomes a Christian convert at the foot of the Cross. During the shoot, Baird disappears and Eddie tries to keep the story out of the gossip columns (which are superintended by Tilda Swinton). Then Eddie gets a ransom note for Baird, and, without involving the law, he attempts to handle the kidnapping on his own.
A devout Catholic, Eddie goes to confession seemingly every day, and the private sins that he avows seem somewhat slim compared with the flagrant fouls of his daily (and nightly) labors—the lies, bribes, threats, and even violence with which he oils the mighty machinery of movies and keeps it running unimpeded and unexamined. The tensions of a Catholic in the Jewish-run industry of early-fifties Hollywood are themselves among the mainsprings of the movie’s comedy as well as of its drama. One of the very best scenes in the film—one of the funniest recent scenes anywhere—features Eddie convening a Catholic priest, a Greek Orthodox priest, a Protestant minister, and a rabbi for their advice on whether the script of “Hail, Caesar!” risks offending “reasonable” viewers of their respective faiths. The very question of whether that notion is tenable, whether there’s anything reasonable about religious belief, sends the scene spinning into exhilarating disputations (including one that’s capped by the rabbi saying, of the three Christian leaders, “These men are screwballs”).
Eddie copes with a diverse slate of movies and the distinctive personalities who populate them. Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), the folksy young rodeo star of an acrobatic musical-Western, is inserted as the romantic lead of a drawing-room drama by the hyper-refined British director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), whose name alone suggests a wide range of gags, which the Coens exploit to the hilt. The shimmery froth of a Busby Berkeley–like water-ballet musical stars a hardboiled and tough-talking hedonist (played by Scarlett Johansson with a chewy New York accent that’s a step from Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont in “Singin’ in the Rain”) whose pregnancy Eddie needs to finesse. There’s also a bouncy musical of sailors about to ship out, starring a popular song-and-dance man named Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), who’s the subject of scurrilous gossip that Eddie works to suppress.
For each of these movies, the Coens offer loving parodies—scenes from these films-within-a-film that suggest the hyperbolic rapture of an effective studio spectacle. They also delight in the range of idiosyncratic personalities that find unexpectedly free expression within the commercial strictures and hermetic confines of a movie studio—and, ultimately, the dramatic outcome of Eddie’s exertions depends greatly on the actual personalities of the studio’s celebrities, which turn out to mesh remarkably tightly with their onscreen personae.
There’s also another belief system that comes to the fore, in scenes of Hollywood Communists (screenwriters, of course) who secretly pull some major strings at Capitol and with whom Eddie is ultimately forced to deal. As in “Barton Fink,” the Coens offer jibes at the presumptions and pretentions of those who come to Hollywood with high hopes for the life of the mind; the filmmakers have a gleeful time with their dialectical dialogue (“We’re not talking about money, we’re talking about economics”) while also giving a pair of silent Communists some of the movie’s giddiest fleeting glances.
There’s only a hint of the fear of exposure and persecution of the age of McCarthyism, which emerges quickly in the dropping of the phrase “naming names.” The underplaying of the era’s political paranoia, especially (but not solely) among a group of self-avowed Communists, is the movie’s one weakness, but it’s compensated for by a great strength—the presence of an ambient and constant threat, homosexuals’ fear of exposure in the press, at the risk of their career and more. A virtual sword of Damocles of blackmail was hanging over the heads of homosexuals in Hollywood at the time, and that hectic and deforming terror plays a critical part in the action (even as, at its climactic moment, the Coens mine the optics for some extraordinary humor, finding gay iconography in surprising places).
The Coens’ Hollywood is an all-white Hollywood—a fact that they emphasize with the presence of one, exactly one, perfectly placed black extra. It’s a man’s Hollywood, which they emphasize with a series of smart and capable women (such as Eddie’s secretary, Natalie, played by Heather Goldenhersh, and the Thelma Ritter–like film editor C. C. Calhoun, played by Frances McDormand), who are in inescapably subordinate positions. The absurdity of the extravagant entertainments that the Coens lovingly replicate is largely due to their narrowness—they’re silly and unintentionally self-mocking, precisely to the extent that they filter so much of life out of them and present a cartoonish simulacrum of reality.
In “Hail, Caesar!,” the Coen brothers portray movies as inseparable from the way they’re made. Their Hollywood is inseparable from Eddie Mannix, from a fixer who can smack actors in the face, commandeer a suitcase full of cash, make legal troubles vanish with a handshake and a bankroll, deal with criminal matters on his own and keep the authorities out of them. Of the films-within-a-film that the Coens show in production at Capitol, there’s one big genre that’s missing—the film noir—because Eddie’s story, off-screen, is the real-life film noir that pervades every movie unawares.
The Coens see the absurdity and the narrowness in the grandeur of the Hollywood mythology on which they were raised. Movies are different now because the people who make them don’t—and can’t—exercise the same sort of plenipotentiary power; because studio heads are no longer godlike; because studios as such, with their closed complexes of soundstages and paternalistic control over actors’ lives, no longer exist. Yet the Coens look back upon those movies with a specific nostalgia for a lost faith. The religion that the Coens grew up with wasn’t Christianity, but it was the American religion—Hollywood.
The American religion of Hollywood is also, in the Coens’ antic view, the essence of American power. A sidebar involving Eddie with a big-time military contractor puts him in the face of a challenge—the confrontation of Hollywood’s “make-believe” with real life, of his “frivolous” work with “serious” businesses, of military might versus what ultimately will become known as soft power.
The core of the Coens’ recent film “A Serious Man” is the recognition that thereal Jewish scripture for secular modern American Jews isn’t the Torah or the Talmud but “F Troop” (and other similar popular entertainments made for the mass market by Hollywood’s secular Jews). The story of “Hail, Caesar!” is the story of that same worship of secular images, but now, from one step further back, in mainstream Christian American society, and the Coen brothers offer brilliantly ironic parallels between religious belief—specifically, Christian doctrine—and the realms of Hollywood.
“Hail, Caesar!” is full of splits: the movie’s Communists talk about society’s class divisions in terms of the division of labor on a movie set. One of the priests convened by Eddie explains that the Christian God is divided into God the Father and the Son of God, who “takes the sins of man upon Him.” Capitol Pictures Studios runs on a similar division: Eddie, working in the realm of “physical production,” toiling day and night with a guilt-riddled burden of endless struggle, takes his orders by phone from the big boss, Nick Schenck, who’s in New York—and who is never seen. (The names of Eddie Mannix andNick Schenck are those of a real-life fixer and boss at M-G-M.)
There’s the studio Father and the studio Son, the invisible Jewish lawgiver from on high and the overburdened, sinful, sacrificial lamb in wolf’s clothing laboring in the studio trenches. Eddie is not cynically marketing Christianity to a predominantly Christian country. He’s a believer, and—in a twist that’s worth mentioning but not spoiling in its specifics—his faith in God and in movies turns out to be surprisingly, movingly unified. (One sign of this faith is his violent reaction when another character in his presence takes Schenck’s name in vain.)
And what about Hollywood’s Holy Spirit? Look onscreen, at the hunky, charismatic Baird Whitlock, played by Clooney with superbly breezy obliviousness; at the heartily athletic Hobie Doyle, whom Ehrenreich incarnates with self-deprecating wiles and some terrific rope tricks large and small; at the aquatic artistry of DeeAnna Moran, whom Johansson infuses with hard-knocks vigor; at the bluff and graceful dancing and ingenuous singing of Burt Gurney, to whom Tatum brings as much knockabout energy and sheer joy as he did to the two “Magic Mike” movies.
In looking to their own primordial American identity as children not of Christian society nor of Jewish upbringing but of Hollywood, the Coen brothers see the distilled essence of their own future—their own cinematic years of devotion and absurdity. The faith in classic Hollywood may be lost, but something of the spirit lives on, somewhere in the infinite game of reflections between the “Hail, Caesar!” of 1951 and the Coen brothers’ own movie of that name, in the exuberant yet revelatory, daft but deep flowering of their own idiosyncratic natures and ideas in whatever Hollywood may be now.
Source: New Yorker
By RICHARD BRODY