Coens’ Caesar gently skewers Hollywood
The great thing about the Coen brothers’ films is that they not only entertain but challenge their audience, something wholly unique and altogether welcome where today’s American movies are concerned. Their latest, Hail, Caesar, is a case in point. On the surface it seems to be nothing more than a deft lampoon of the Hollywood studio system that generates a few solid laughs – including two uproarious set pieces – and seems content to simply amuse. However, as with most of the Coens’ films, this one haunts you after an initial viewing, its story rattling around in your mind, compelling you to look beneath the surface which reveals a rather subversive take on the business in which the Coens’ toil.
The time is the early 1950s, and Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, effective in a rare sympathetic role) has a job that he simply can’t live without, though it’s beginning to wear on him. He’s a fixer for Capital Pictures, meaning that it’s his job to rectify and keep from the press any lapses in judgment the studio’s actors and actresses might make. Needless to say, this is a full-time job and then some. When one of the young starlets in his charge is found to be taking suggestive pictures after a night of partying, Mannix is there to put an end to things before they get out of hand. This is small potatoes compared to the other fires he has to put out. The company’s unmarried, swimming musical star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson doing her best Esther Williams) is pregnant, he must placate English director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) when he’s forced to use the singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in his latest drawing room comedy, and then there’s matter of the studio’s biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), being kidnapped just as production of the biblical epic Hail, Caesar is winding down.
While this may sound like a bit of a manic mess, the pace the Coens’ use is surprisingly relaxed. The plot unfolds deliberately as the directors bring things to a halt on occasion to simultaneously pay homage and skewer films from the post-war era. The swimming musical sequence featuring Moran is, remarkably, even more overwrought and ridiculous than those in Williams’ movies, while a song-and-dance routine featuring Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum standing in for Gene Kelly) is an energetic, well-timed, bawdy send up of a number that could have been shot and then excised from On the Town. This is one of the highlights of the film, as is an extended scene that brilliantly builds a head of comedic steam when the mannered Laurentz attempts to get the ever-twangy Doyle to properly utter a single line of dialogue. This moment alone is worth the price of admission.
However, there’s much more at play here than a gentle parody, as the Coens’ message is that there’s very little in the real world we can rely on and that we’d all be much better off deluding ourselves with the high-gloss illusions the movies provide us. Whitlock is a moron, Moran is a crude broad, Gurney is far from the all-American boy he’s made out to be, and the manufactured nature of film is underscored again and again by the many shots in which we see the studio’s immaculate sets photographed against the crude environment of the dusty, dingy soundstages where they’re constructed.
Just like the paper moon of song, it’s all make believe but as long as we’re willing to believe in the complex illusions Hollywood gives us, then they’re real enough. At least, that’s the conclusion Mannix comes to after rejecting a far more lucrative job offer with Lockheed Airlines. Yes, it would be more money, less hours and not nearly as much stress, but it sure wouldn’t be as satisfying as making sure the American public has the Technicolor dreams it needs to get through their mundane lives. That Mannix is deluding himself with this belief makes the film’s irony all the more bitter and fitting.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.