For the last three years the Coen Brothers have been concerning themselves exclusively with scriptwriting, penning scripts as varied as Unbroken and Bridge of Spies. With Hail, Caesar! the duo return in top form to the directing chair (or chairs), picking up right where they left off as some of the most important and fascinating American filmmakers today.
This time around the Coens aim their lenses and focus on a waning and dysfunctional 1950s Hollywood system under the threat of the latest novelty: television. Amidst this transitional period Hollywood royalty remains unscrupulous as ever, getting into less-than-savory shenanigans that could jeopardize their public images.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is exactly the checks-and-balances these pampered stars need. As head of production at Capitol Pictures and a “fixer”, it’s his job to keep these wayward celebrities on the “holier” side of things. Despite a lucrative offer for a high-paying position at Lockheed, a recent spate of problems beckon Mannix to remain at Capitol and take care of things. That position might have allowed Mannix quality time with his wife (Alison Pill), who we only see once in the entire movie – a shame as she’s a pleasure to watch.
The workload mounts for Mannix with the disappearance of movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), big-name star of the Roman epic “Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ.” As we soon discover, he’s been kidnapped by a group called “The Future” – a communist organization comprised of screenwriters and intellectuals hiding at a seaside Malibu home.
Then we have DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), the beautiful starlet/actress in Busby Berkeley type musicals. She’s also unmarried and pregnant, and not entirely sure who the father is. Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is an attractive and charming western star who tries his hand at drama in director Laurence Laurentz (Joseph Fiennes) newest prestige picture. Doyle proves inept as a dramatic actor, spelling trouble for the director, the production, and Mannix.
As one might gather, Hail, Caesar! boasts a stellar cast, each character more idiosyncratic than the next. Even Channing Tatum shines as Burt Gurney, a Gene Kelly type, tap dancing and tipping tables with a smile and sailor’s outfit. I’m beginning to question whether Tilda Swinton can ever do wrong as she takes on double-duty as twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker. With her typical brilliance and exuberance Swinton plays her characters with a subdued wackiness that is entirely in keeping with a Coen Brothers character.
The Coen’s capture the zeitgeist of the transitional Hollywood period in the early fifties, not just through their talented cast but through careful attention to detail and history. Amidst fears of nuclear warfare, Soviet Russia, double agents, and communism, the Hollywood studio system was beginning to show signs of collapse and the artistic quality of the epic picture has shown as such. “Hail, Caesar!” is the type of money-pumped epical farce that Hollywood loved to churn out in an attempt to lure audiences away from their confined colorless world of television.
These lavish productions were the Ben-Hurs and the Gigis of their time, expensive and handsomely “fake” productions whose only concern was luring in audiences and pulling in box-office receipts. As the screen grew wider and more colorful, the films’ artfulness disappeared, giving way to a Hollywood system looking to stay afloat and profitable.
The Coens expose the machinations of this ridiculous system, shifting focus away from the titular production and exposing the juicy and scandalous stories around the production. Mannix continually fends off the Thacker twins in desperate search for juicy and scurrilous stories, which is fiercely entertaining but also helps pose intriguing questions: when exactly does cinema become a breeding ground for the gossip column and when is it actually concerned in artistry?
Despite its post-war setting, it doesn’t appear much has changed in the 21st century, featuring characteristics of the all too familiar current Hollywood system. As the summer blockbusters continue to demonstrate year after year these massive financial ventures have become mostly spectacles: Cinemascope, 3D were all gimmicks of their time and, now, IMAX and 3D (again) have taken the mantle. Even more interesting, television – once again – and streaming are the real threats that the movie industry must compete against.
There are the tabloids that focus on the scandalous and promote “newsworthy” content that celebrity obsessed audiences consume with rabid hunger. Then it was Liz Taylor’s numerous love affairs and now it is constant updates on the mundane tribulations of the Kardashians.
When the industry isn’t concerned with celebrity idolatry, it promotes dominant ideology to the masses implicitly and explicitly, marginalizing and even “othering” what it considers insidious views (in this case Communism). In Hail, Caesar! politics are literally left at the ocean’s edge, secluded from the rest of society so as to not infiltrate and “corrupt” prominent ideological views.
Religion is of central interest to the Coens as well as they focus on the selling of religion and spirituality through their immodest and expensive productions, ironically promoting the frugality of Jesus Christ. We see a guilt-ridden Mannix, a God-fearing Catholic, confess his sins every 24 hours to his priest. During Baird’s final speech the phoniness of Hollywood percolates when he can’t remember his line – which happens to be the word “faith”. What is supposed to be a revelatory and spiritual moment breaks down with Baird’s simple gaffe.
Hail, Caesar! is the Coen Bros’ at their most profound yet ambivalent, comparable to their other religious parable A Serious Man. The Coen’s masterfully take on both religion and the Hollywood mystique, traversing effectively between the two with ease and proficiency, in the wacky manner that they usually masquerade about. This isn’t their funniest film, but is definitely among their most enigmatic and complex, worthy of repeated viewings to fully understand and grasp the greatness of what should be an American classic.