Photo credit: Vulture
Frankfurt School dialectics. The “genius of the system.” The specter of McCarthyism. The struggle for the legitimacy of a medium (and its attendant journalism). In both form and function, Hail Caesar! seems to be the Coens’ attempt to condense a large chunk of introductory film scholarship into one film. As a result, it’s a big film, opting for the sweeping scale of O Brother, Where Art Thou? as opposed to the tight, quirky character studies of other Coen comedies. Given the glitz and grandeur of its Classical Hollywood setting, the breadth of the film’s concerns makes a certain kind of sense. It can also be disorienting, as B plot vignettes are given plenty of room to breathe and the main narrative is kept at bay. These vignettes feel like the result of a late-night pitch session between the brothers, each trying to top the other’s ideas for skits set across one back lot in the early 50s. There’s a rousing cowboy picture featuring the flamboyant stunts and comically earnest glowers of a young frontier heartthrob (Alden Ehrenreich). There’s a pitch-perfect Esther Williams-style synchronized swimming number punctuated by its surly lead (Scarlett Johansson) voicing her frustrations over the “fish ass” of her mermaid costume, and an equally faithful Gene Kelly homage anchored by preternatural multi-talent Channing Tatum that’s just sort of impressive on its own with no ironic strings attached. There’s a theological consultation session set up as a focus group on the eponymous Biblical epic in production, a meeting which quickly devolves into a “priest, preacher, cleric, and rabbi walk into a boardroom…” joke.
And did I mention that this is a movie about Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix’s (Josh Brolin) frenzied search for superstar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who’s been kidnapped and indoctrinated by a syndicate of Communist screenwriters called “The Future”? An angrier reviewer would call Hail Caesar! a disingenuous cash grab dependent on the cobbling together of parts that have worked for the Coen brand before (kidnapping, satirizing philosophical theories, Clooney). Three things trouble this reading: one, the film was actually a long time in the making, and only came to fruition after some arm twisting from Clooney; two, it didn’t make a ton of cash for very long; and three, for all its disjointedness it delivers an intricately detailed, well-acted comedy (come for the aforementioned leads, stay for brilliant character turns from the likes of Ralph Fiennes, David Krumholtz, Frances McDormand, and Heather Goldenhersh) that scratches the surface of some big ideas about the culture industry and its crises of conscience. One of the film’s most impressive feats is that it does not feel bogged down by Hollywood navel-gazing, despite being an industry satire set in an oft-romanticized era. While it’s not a piece of Hollywood hate mail, it’s not exactly a love letter either. This is just as well, as it does stumble a bit in getting its point across on finding agency in a field that lends itself to scripting a person’s life on all fronts. Though they are played for laughs, scenes of Mannix’s assertion of power over his stars can be a bit tone deaf. Given that the studio system’s campaign of control lead to many a tragic end, becoming especially volatile once the Red Scare (which the film keeps just outside the frame) was dropped into the mix, I felt a twinge of guilt poking through the madcap fun of it all. Perhaps that’s the point. And perhaps the glib treatment is meant to ironize these conditions, as certain characters are “saved” from the government’s version of Eddie’s coercive tactics. Of course, this consuming, love/hate relationship that Eddie has with controlling Hollywood becomes especially blackly comic when one considers the role that the real-life Mr. (and Mrs.) Mannix played in the tawdry death of TV’s Superman, George Reeves. The film’s theological ambivalence plays into this ethical gray area. Time and again it coyly introduces, then dodges, inclinations that Eddie’s messes are somehow divinely ordained. Appropriately, the film ends on an odd note that drives this point home: a rising crane shot of the Capitol lot abruptly whip pans across the sky and into the sun, filling the frame with a divine, blinding light.
And so, as with any other Coen film, we are left with as many questions as answers. Another Coen staple, for me at least, is a line of dialogue that sticks around long after the movie, both as some kind of entryway to understanding the film and as objectively good, memorable writing. In the case of Hail Caesar!, this line comes in the form of what’s essentially a throwaway aside. As Eddie balances catching up with his secretary and watching unpolished dailies, a voice booms stage directions in the background: “Squint! Squint against the grandeur!” This is a film of reverence rendered absurd by its mandatory nature. If you squint just hard enough, you’ll at least be able to blur the film’s disparate ideas and parts into a cohesive whole that’s fun to ponder for a day or two after the credits roll. One hopes that the Coens will know to hang it up when the reverence for their work starts to feel forced, lest they end up the butt of their own joke.