dir: Coen Brothers
Eh. I didn’t really get it.
This is fairly minor Coen Brothers as far as I’m concerned. Yes, I get that the Coens love the Golden Age of Hollywood. Yep, okay, got it. In case I’d never noticed before, most of the Coen Brothers’ movies are about movies. Some of their greatest work or funniest sequences have harkened back to times of yore and movies of days gone by.
But, yeah, it’s not a matter of just doing a homage/reference, or enjoying a homage/reference. The whole point of this flick is that there doesn’t really seem to be a point, other than Hollywood continuing to do what Hollywood does is probably a good thing(?)
It's the feeling I had, when Hail, Caesar! ended, that I also had at the end of Burn After Reading, a flick I genuinely, actively disliked before it ended, and downright hated once the ending basically stated outright "We have no idea what the point was, either". Endings like that are such a shoulder shrug of a statement that I can't help but feel insulted.
There's some kernel of an idea, several ideas, even. There are some keen or even endearing performances. There's an almost structure, one almost kinda similar to a detective trying to navigate a corrupt world and solve a mystery.
All these kinda sorta story beats completely fade out in favour of strange, abrupt offscreen occurrences and glib resolutions. The 'mystery' isn't that much of a mystery, and there's never any indication that any of it is going to matter.
It's at most an excuse to have some strange Coen humour served up within even stranger scenarios, but with nothing to really connect them to the cavalcade of characters and 'hilarious' Hollywood goings-on in a way that would seem to matter.
Part of why it disappointed me is perhaps because the set up made it look like something straight out of the novels of James Ellroy. You know, like LA Confidential, or The Black Dahlia, just without as many sociopathic cops stinking up the joint.
The seedy underbelly of the Golden Age of Hollywood is fertile ground perhaps for crime thrillers and femme fatales and such, but it's even riper for homages, musicals and dance routines! Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a studio fixer at Capital Films. Whenever there's a problem on a movie, he attacks the problem to the best of his abilities and with gusto akimbo. If one of the actresses under contract is getting saucy shots done for some extra cash, photographed churning butter no less, well, Eddie swoops in to take care of it. If there are rumours that someone is gay, Eddie squashes the rumours mercilessly. If there's a problem on a film, he yells at the director until production recommences, or sends the actors away to dry out for a spell.
If their biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) goes missing? Well, Mannix has to get him back, especially when the studio is trying to finish off a biblical epic bigger than Ben Hur (one which is pretty much Ben Hur, as far as I could tell). That's where the title comes from, the in-movie movie being made by the studio. The full title is "Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ".
I would have respected the Coens more if they'd called it Hail, Caesar - A Tale of The Jesus.
Why? Because nobody fucks with The Jesus.
Maybe that would have been too self-referential. However, virtually everything they do here, and have been doing for over twenty years, is self-referential.
There's also something about a young guy (Alden Ehrenreich) who was happy in cowboy movies doing trick horse stuff, shooting injuns and twanging away on his guitar, being forced by the studio to do stuffy dramatic movies as well. The best and longest scene of any worth is where Hobie is being directed by an effete but controlling (and trolling) director called Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) to deliver a line of dialogue in a manner appropriate to the high toned film.
The line “Would that it were so simple” gets repeated a baffling amount of times, and it somehow gets funnier each time. Beyond that, Fiennes’ irritating director also keeps correcting Hobie over his pronunciation of his surname, to which Hobie is ever so apologetic, only to have it changed on him in the midst of all this madness.
The resolution to the scene, only seen later in the editing suite, is priceless.
Hobie, or at least the actor playing him, is a delight. He seems like a simple soul who’d prefer to be out on the prairie or home on the range, but he’s far cannier that the initial parts of the film imply. If there was a hero in this flick, or at least a character for the audience to like and hope good things for (there isn’t), it would be him, perhaps.
The reason I single him out is because the actual lead, being the role played by Josh Brolin, isn’t really there all that much. He’s also a kind of dull character, I’m ashamed to admit. His one great scene (or at least a very much okay one, by my reckoning) is where he calls together the representatives of four of the main faiths to the studio in order to ask them if they’re okay with the content of the movie, in case they find it blasphemous or sacrilegious or anything similar. Instead they chat all friendly like about their own movie ideas, argue among themselves over the finer points of Christianity, and in the end all agree it should be swell, just swell, when the flick gets made.
The funniest part of that is where the rabbi of the group starts chastising the Christian priests for their ludicrous beliefs in a God who has sons, and maybe a dog, and a white picket fence. The rabbi asserts that God is a bachelor, and very angry all the time.
That kinda goes along with my own beliefs, which align with maltheism (god exists, but he hates all of us), so it’s funny and touching to hear them echoed in such a comical fashion.
Mannix is in most scenes, but I just could not bring myself to care about the character. Much is made about Lockheed wanting to poach him from Tinseltown, but it’s hard to care about the outcome.
The humour works in that scene, but not in many others. There’s a strange, almost macabre gag where an editor (Frances McDormand) nearly gets strangled in the editing booth, but which completely failed to generate even the least amount of chuckle from me. No chuckle whatsoever.
The cookie cutter / factory output nature of movie production back then points to how different the business model was, and the expendable nature of everyone in the process must have been, but in a comical way. I'm not foolish enough to take any of this as documentary evidence, but the manner in which multiple productions are ongoing at the studio, and some of those elements are dropped in and out like they're pieces of Lego, is meant to show the operation of the great machine way back when. Which is totally not like now, oh no.
There are other obvious references to the times of yore, none more problematic than the depiction of a bunch of screenwriters as literally card-carrying Communists. It's played for what I assume is laughs, because I can't imagine the Coens are asserting that McCarthy was right and half of Hollywood should have named names and dobbed in the other half in so that they could be killed or sent back to Russia.
The stinking Commies who kidnap Baird (Clooney plays a sloppy doofus throughout, except when he’s overacting in the biblical epic), convince him that the manifest inequality of the studio system means they’re perpetually screwed over when it comes to money. To make up for this, they first want to ransom him for a stack of cash, since they’ve been toiling away in the screenplay mines for pennies when the films made make big bucks. The next stage of their plan is taking over the means of production (the studios) and forcing Hollywood to destroy itself (if only!) When he wonders aloud about his cut out of the money, like true Commies, they laugh and say he’s not entitled to it like they are.
They’re all brown-wearing, pipe smoking, intellectual types, and they argue among themselves like first year philosophy students, and they’re dull and dreary as fuck. After the initial shock of their existence, they convince us of the worthlessness of the Commie cause by boring us into supporting capitalism all over again.
And Mannix, as the great counterrevolutionary agent of Capital Pictures, is here to remind Baird, the Commie lackies and the rest of us that Hollywood is Good, Hollywood is Great, and We Should Just Surrender Our Will, as of this Date.
Bleugh. I didn’t need that. I didn’t need any of it. If it weren’t for Hobie Doyle, the whole thing would have been utterly pointless.
Oh wait, I’m not being totally fair. There’s also a great dance routine in the middle, just after the revelation that the screenwritin’ Commies have been subtly sneaking their evil messages into the flicks they’ve been working on.
So when a bunch of actors playing sailors whose shore leave is about to end start singing and dancing about the impending, complete absence of dames that they are soon to be confronted with, it really doesn’t seem to be that subtle at all. I mean, At All. Not to sound like this is the word ‘gay’ being used in the pejorative sense, but that brilliant song and dance routine is the gayest thing I’ve ever scene, and there’s no way that would have gotten past the censors back in the day.
If there was a point, as signified by a re-energised Mannix at the end of the flick, who makes a decision, it’s that nothing’s better than continuing to do the bidding of your studio masters as long as new movies keep being pumped out. One could argue that, on the other hand, there could also be nothing worse?
What does your conscience tell you, after all?
6 times if nothing else, at least we get to see Brolin slapping George Clooney around out of 10
“This is bad. Bad for movie stars everywhere.” – I’m sure they’ll be okay – Hail, Caesar!