The Coen Brothers are some of cinema’s best directors, and I say that as someone who was far from wowed by their last directorial effort, the vastly over-rated Inside Llewyn Davis. They dropped the ball there in a big way there, and I think that continued with their co-authored script for Spielberg’s Bridge Of Spies.
A succession of duds then, in my eyes, but these two are far too talented to deserve my scorn for too long. Making a movie about the movies is always going to be potentially dodgy territory – too often it becomes a sycophantic and inaccessible exercise – but if I was to pick a director or directors whom I would trust with such a project, the people behind O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country For Old Men and Miller’s Crossing would be up there. Through in a fantastic looking cast and you have the makings of something great. So, was Hail, Caesar! a rip-roaring return to form for the siblings? Or is it another disappointing effort indicating a serious downturn in their directorial acumen? I caught a slightly advanced screening of Hail, Caesar! at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a problem solving head of production in a 1950’s Hollywood movie studio, who finds himself trying to fix a variety of potential disasters in one 24 hour period: the re-imaging of “singing cowboy” Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into a dramatic lead, acclaimed director Laurence Laurentz’s (Ralph Fiennes) problems with the same, starlet’s DeeAna Moran’s (Scarlett Johansson) burgeoning secret pregnancy and the poking around of twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly (Tilda Swinton). Worst of all though is the sudden disappearance of mega-star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), kidnapped by shadowy group called “The Future”, just as shooting nears completion on his religious epic “Hail, Caesar!: A Tale Of The Christ”.
Having spent some time doing more serious stuff, with mixed success in my eyes, the Coen’s have gone back to the more obviously black comedy style of masterpiece O Brother, Where Art Thou! For this one, that comes with much the same kind of narrative style, a collection of seemingly random skits and adventures that tie together only in the loosest thematic sense, wrapped round a central plotline surrounding the self-identity and fate of the man in the middle of it all. And the result is a fantastic success, as the Coen’s find a way to match the quality of their previous black comedy effort, and maybe even surpass it at times. A well-paced and well-constructed affair, Hail, Caesar! is going for gold right from the off.
I mentioned the pitfalls of “movies about movies”, but Hail, Caesar! does manage to avoid them. The film, in its numerous looks at the genres and offering of the periods – a mishmash of sword and sandals epics, period dramas set largely in drawing rooms, tap-dancing musicals, choreographed swimming sequences and comedy cowboy films – is an immensely affectionate love letter to the era, a time when Hollywood was struggling with the stresses of maintaining a terminally ill studio system in the face of government interference, censorship and the rising “Red Scare”. One of the film’s opening sequences is a look at the titular film’s opening sequences, narrated by an excellent Michael Gambon, outlining the power and prestige of the Roman Empire and its Emperor, a clear metaphor for the studio and its power players, whose own existence and influence is just as shaky and easily threatened as this film production. The Coen’s are able to portray this without wandering too far into sentiment, and did manage to make me smile at their nostalgic rendering of that 1950’s style of “epic” film, that I recall watching at times with my father in my childhood.
And that is largely because they also manage to mix the love letter with a very entertaining satire of the same period, and the myriad of personalities that loomed large. At every moment that Hail, Caesar! tries to showcase a world where cinema creates spellbinding worlds to escape into, it also wants to show us the frequently humorous reality: the Kirk Douglas-esque Whitlock trying to clean his teeth between takes, the foul-mouthed “girl next door” type trying to conceal a pregnancy, missing sequences in barely edited reels entitled “DIVINE PRESENCE TO BE FILMED” and just the general malaise, self-importance and sheer madness of an industry wrapped around selling illusions so much that the private lives of its stars are just as important as the films they appear in. A sequence where Whitlock, laden down by his fake Roman armour and sword, suffers an undignified struggle to get out of a deckchair, is enough to make the point: these guys are great on the screen, but the reality is a fascinating car crash sometimes.
As a comedy, it works spectacularly well, with the Coen’s script introducing that same subline mix of witty wordplay, slapstick and physical humour that worked so well in previous films. You can’t help but be charmed by Channing Tatum’s “No Dames!” musical number, just as much as you can’t help tittering at the film editor who witlessly chokes herself near to death when her tie gets caught in the projector. Mannix assembles a crossbody of religious representatives to get opinions on the faith-based aspects of their flagship productions, and the Orthodox Patriarch only wants to talk about the unlikely mechanics of an action scene. Poor Hobie, his southern drawl dogging him at every turn, struggles through a basic line of “Would that it t’were so simple” to the frustrated disdain of thespian Laurentz, an extended set-up for an utterly hilarious punchline later in the film. This is a film, and a script, written and executed with a great deal of care, that gently eviscerates its subjects while also making us really relate and sympathise with them.
It also works on a character level. Mannix’ story is wrapped around a tempting offer from Lockheed, a more stable job at better pay, but the “fixer” is drawn irresistibly back to the studio where he spends his days solving the inanest problems. Mannix is an odd one: we open with him attending what seems to be a daily Confession with a priest, where he seems racked with guilt at being unable to give up cigarettes having promised his wife that he would. He goes from there straight to his day job, stopping a young starlet from being embarrassed by vaguely pornographic pictures, slapping her around in the process, barely giving such an action a second thought. Mannix is a creation of the somewhat warped mentality of the times: his guilt over the cigarettes may be more over his absence from his family, and his rough-handed style with his actors may be more to do with their inconsequential whinging when they have a job to do. Through it all, we have Josh Brolin at his best: a big heavyweight of a man who manages to give us a sensitive soul, who is struggling to keep all of the plates spinning while wondering why he enjoys doing it so much.
At times, the film might be trying a bit too hard to get serious with Mannix – a moment involving a picture of a H-Bomb explosion comes to mind – and his dilemma over his current job and the tempting offer is perhaps introduced a mite too late for full use to be made of it. But he’s mostly a treat to follow around with, a straight man amid the clowns, a Christ figure taking on the sins of the studio.
As is typical for the Coen’s. the rest of the picture is littered with smaller roles that still manage to make a big impression. Ehrenreich’s Hobie is a big one, who immediately sucks you in with his genuine “Gosh darn” attitude and accent, a young man who seems so out of his depth in the Hollywood system. When he kills time practising rope tricks, he starts off as just a dumb throwaway joke, and then becomes increasingly endearing, a symbol of a man more at home shooting bad guys on horseback than being the serious romantic lead. He could easily just be a straight comedic character – his interactions with Fiennes’ auteur director are amazing, albeit brief – but later we get additional depth, especially when he is placed opposite the similarly impressive Veronica Osorio. Clooney as Whitlock, a bruiting dolt of a leading man, really gets this strange type of Hollywood quasi-liberal, easily duped into going along with questionable political organisations, that will surely backfire later, all while struggling with his Roman-era armour and sword.
Indeed, this film, coming out at roughly the same time as Trumbo, is also part and parcel with that “Red” era. Hail, Caesar! is just before it really took off, but it covers similar ground: the insidious entryism of some communist cells and the “blacklisting” on the horizon, while also taking the time to playfully skewer such perceptions: an over the top sequence involving a midnight rendezvous with Soviet agents in an unlikely manner is a real show-stealing moment in the third act. The film spends as much time on Christian themes – the intensely devout Mannix deals with temptation and sin aplenty, and his reverence for the faith comes out in spades in his attitude to the titular production, with a crucifixion scene in Hail, Caesar! being an important moment in the larger story – and the two ideologies stand in stark contrast to each other.
I digress. Johansson gets only a few brief scenes but is great as Esther Williams-type cursing her way through a scene where she struggles to fit into a mermaid costume, Channing Tatum shows us he can sing as a tap-dancing sailor, Ralph Fiennes is wonderfully “European” and Tilda Swinton’s bickering sibling pair are a delight. If I was to criticise, it might be the odd casting of Jonah Hill in a nothing part, making a mockery of his prominent place in the promotional material.
Roger Deakins, a long-time collaborator for the Coens as cinematographer, does his usual sterling work behind the camera, bringing the period and the location to life. Mannix’ opening confession is bathed in shadows and light so much the effect is almost monochrome: his busting up of some unauthorised photography of a young starlet later is similarly hushed in colour. But this glimpse at reality is soon taken over by fantasy: the shooting lots of Capital Pictures, where Mannix wanders through Roman-era dining parties, half built statues, period lounges, musical bars and a whole lot of people in various costumes.
The effect is at once comical and bewildering, and the camera’s lingering on the more obvious signs of fakery – that half-built statue lying in a lot road, the camera on tracks shooting scenes, or the numerous moments when Mannix examines partially edited footage – all combine to add to this blending of the real and the fictional, pointing out Hollywood’s power just as it points out its flimsy reality. Hail, Caesar! is a film with this contrast at its core, and it takes a chunk out of nearly every scene.
But, at the end of the day, the Coens and Deakins deserve most of their praise for their recreation of the eras films. There’s a wonderful reverence in every moment that a Gene Kelly-esque dancing sailor jumps up on a barroom table in “Anchors Aweigh!”, or in the stilted in filming, sumptuous on film “Merrily We Danced” that Hobie finds himself unwillingly cast in. I mentioned before that the film just manages to capture the “feel” of these productions just right, and there’s really no better way that I could describe it. I actually kind of want to watch Hail, Caesar!: A Tale Of The Christ, and not just for Clancy Brown’s wonderfully gruff Roman sidekick.
Some brief spoiler talk follows.
It really is easy to see Mannix as a Christ figure. He himself is obsessed with a faithful and non-offensive telling of the Christ story, and when he sits the Reverend, the Patriarch, the Rabbi and the Priest down early on it’s like he’s the preacher himself trying to convince the non-believers to see things his way. As the film goes on, he spends his day trying to do good works – the creation of art, finding a husband for DeAnna (she moans early on about how hard it is to find someone reliable, and Mannix introduces her to the most reliable man in the city), giving Hobie his shot at something bigger, dragging Whitlock back into the fold and immediately paying up for Whitlock without a moment’s hesitation.
The effort is draining, both personally and for the family he barely see’s. Taking the Lockheed job would be the easy way out, and the representative from that company is an almost Satan like figure, tempting Mannix with a carefree life and unbelievable power through its H-Bomb program, while denigrating his current existence. Mannix refuses to take the bait, and part of this decision occurs on that final scene of Hail, Caesar!, near the three crucifixes. Mannix faces his Calvary, and comes through the other side. And there are lots of other little allusions too: the daily conversations with the studio head, basically God, the various apostles, from Hobie to Silverman, that he uses to help him in his tasks, and the situation with DeAnna, which isn’t all that far from a metaphorical virgin birth.
On that final scene, it’s the best example of Hail, Caesar!’s dualism in terms of portraying cinema. The Coens take their time to show the set-up of the scene – the cameras, the crew, the stage – something all very manufactured. But Whitlock’s speech is incredibly moving, and has even these cynical “seen it all, done it all” people in tears, with Mannix looking on with approval, the very power of cinema to manipulate our emotions in a nutshell. Until, inevitably, Whitlock messes up the line and the illusion, ever fleeting, is shattered.
Lastly, on “The Future”: One could go mad discussing their interpretation of Marxist theory, but I found it interesting that their central grievance, that even though the film industry cannot function without them they have less financial success than actors and other production people, is followed up on by their similar involvement with the communist system. They row Gurney out to his rendezvous with the Soviet sub, and even hand over their 30 pieces of silver for “the cause”, before rowing back to shore to be arrested by the authorities. In essence, they have used their labour to propel a movie star into a higher position in life than their own, and have wound up with nothing to show for it. The commentary is fairly obvious when you look at it that way: that for all their talk of determining the future through their Marxist beliefs and actions, and using it to improve their station in life, they have ended up in much the same state as they did when working for the aptly named “Capitol Studios”.
Oh, and “It’s…complicated” is one of the best punchlines to a joke set-up an hour beforehand in a film I have ever seen.
Hail, Caesar! is a welcome return to form for the Coen’s, whose mastery of script, character, drama and comedy, is all on full display here. They have managed to create something that is, at the same time, both a biting piss-take of this era of film-making, and a very genuine tribute to the power of its films. It is a light on the what kind of people made such projects, and how they were able to portray themselves as something else entirely all the time. It is, in essence, a tribute to the power of cinema to affect us, and to the personalities who created, moulded and then used that power. Combined with an engaging and hilarious script, strong camera work, and some expert pacing, the Coen’s have another film that they can place confidently on their top shelf. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures).