Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Enrenreich, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes
Directors: Joel Cohen, Ethan Coen
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
"Would that it were so simple" -Hobie Doyle
The conversation surrounding any new work from Joel and Ethan Cohen usually has more narrative tissue than the films themselves, and it certainly goes without saying that the brothers are Hollywood auteurs making the exact kinds of pictures they want without much studio interference. Ironically, their latest effort has been ceremoniously dumbed into the early February doldrums after Universal Pictures decided it wasn't the stuff made for Oscar gold. This is ironic because Hail, Caesar! for all it's lightness of tone and comedic undertones, is really an astute satire of the golden age of the Hollywood studio system. It's also, incidentally, something that will likely be labeled second tier or "minor Coens", meaning that it's somehow less important or meaningful than some of their darker, more serious-minded features.
This, though, is a misunderstanding of what the brothers are about, and presupposes that comedy isn't a profound representation of human nature. Of course, no one will claim that Hail Caesar! is a profound movie, and the Coens clearly don't think so either, but there's still more going on here than simply aesthetic pleasures. For one thing, the film can be seen as a companion piece to their 1991 masterpiece Barton Fink, only here, instead of Steve Buscemi as a dim-witted bell boy, we have Channing Tatum performing homoerotic tap dance numbers. Throughout, the Coens place a keen admiration for classic studio filmmaking within the prism of a meandering lark, and you can almost envision them grinning from ear to ear as they get the chance to stage a variety of vignettes--a sweeping Biblical epic, a costume period drama, a Bubsey Berkely-inspired swimming montage, that aforementioned song and dance bit with Tatum--all under the guise of a shaggy dog plot. With Barton Fink, the Coens seemed angry and confrontational (though that film is still darkly hilarious) when it came to ripping apart the studio system of yesteryear. Here, they aren't seeking to burn the industry to the ground so much as tickle you in the ribs while questioning what value the system has in the first place. It's a neat variation on the standard Coens ethos of interrogating the state of art as it relates to commerce and systems dwarfing the autonomy of the every man, only here given the slapdash comedic treatment aimed squarely at TCM lovers.
The film follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a behind-the-scenes "fixer" for Capitol Pictures; (in another wry callback to Fink, the same studio only a decade later), who is seen right away inside a confession booth regretfully admitting his penchant for smoking cigarettes. In fact, the opening shot; of a large crucifix inside a church, sets the stage for the Coens to frame Mannix's noble quest to keep the studio afloat after the kidnapping of major Capitol star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), as a metatextual commentary on their own relationship with Hollywood. This central plot; of Clooney's bumbling star taken captive by a bunch of communist screenwriters, is really a diversion; much like the stealing of the rug in The Big Lebowski, the Coens use in order to get Mannix out of his office and onto soundstages in order to stage a variety of wonderful set-pieces. Sometimes, they are poking fun at Ben Hur-style epics, complete with mugging Clooney reaction shots encountering a gold-haired Jesus, while at other moments, they are peeling back the curtain suggesting homoerotic undertones where a bunch of sailors opine the loss of "dames" while getting a little too friendly amongst themselves during a broad musical number. There's even an Esther Williams stand-in under the name of DeAnna Moran (a game Scarlett Johansson), an aquatic star who is rather uncomfortable inside her mermaid outfit and whose subplot to adopt her own child out of wedlock mirrors real-life Hollywood lore. Most winning, though, is Alden Enrenreich as dopey upstart Hobie Doyle, who gets taken off the set of his B-movie cowboy picture and thrust into the Baird Whitlock starring role in a period drama. A prolonged sequence where a peeved director (Ralph Fiennes, pitch-perfect) tries to coach him through one simple line of dialogue is a hilarious gag which goes on beyond the point of reason and simply becomes funnier by mere repetition. Enrenreich, meanwhile, walks away with the film, providing moments of goofy charm and some key lasso moves; one as a pre-date warmup, and the other during a pasta dinner.
Ultimately, Hail, Caesar! is a series of loosely connected scenes which somehow center around Mannix's steely-eyed reserve to, as he sees it, "do the right thing". Even when the film gets away from him for stretches, it always returns to his moral dilemma; of staying with the studio and doing the hard work, or giving up and joining Lockheed Martin. One of the key pleasures here is that the Coens never devolve fully into parody. Instead, there's a winking acknowledgment of the kitschy aspects of 50s cinema while at the same time using those elements to provide mild entertainment. Mannix, therefore, isn't a comical construction, but rather a Coens surrogate, a man loyal to the studio system while fighting against the contradictions that such a thing entails. In showing the absurdity of the golden age of Hollywood without relying on mean-spirited farce, the Coens have essentially made one of their more optimistic pictures. In a surprising twist, Mannix doesn't decry the studio system and call it's bluff, but instead, chooses to remain loyal to the institution even as it's clear that they are in many ways a flawed system. The idea of making commercially successful, studio-backed films while still having artistic and creative control is something the Coens have always seemed to wrestle with, and that tension is crucial to Hail, Caesar! It's a light-hearted Coens picture, to be sure, and there will certainly be those claiming it's a misfire or belongs somewhere in the bottom rung of semi-disposable efforts lumped in between their masterpieces. But, as Hobie Doyle desperately tries to say during that extended sequence with Fiennes's perturbed filmmaker, "were that it were so simple."