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by Ilana Masad
Reviewed in this essay: Hail, Caesar!, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen. Universal Pictures, 2016, 106 minutes.
THE COEN BROTHERS’ films are a varied bunch, but as distinct and knowable as Woody Allen’s. Their quirks and oddities precede them to such a degree that we don’t often walk into a Coen brothers film without being aware, and wary — and eager. After all, the men who brought us The Dude, His Dudeness, Duder, or El Duderino (if you’re not into the whole brevity thing, as Jeff Bridges says in the Coens’ cult classic The Big Lebowski), could put pretty much anything on a screen and audiences will flock to see it.
In their latest, Hail, Caesar!, they feature some of their favorite folk: Frances McDormand (as film editor C. C. Calhoun), George Clooney (as famous actor Baird Whitlock), and Josh Brolin (as Eddie Mannix). More Hollywood darlings are appropriately featured in this film, which celebrates the film industry in a most tongue-in-cheek fashion: Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum, to name a few.
The movie is beautifully elaborate in its sets and costumes, but these are merely flashy accessories to what feels like a big joke’s-on-you. Hail, Caesar! is a film about film, about Hollywood of the early 1950s, about the ridiculousness that was, and is, Show Biz. What makes this somewhat preciously apparent is the way the gorgeous scenes that are being shot for a variety of films — a costume drama, a Fred Astaire-like musical, an inexplicable mermaid-with-synchronized-swimmers feature — are always shown to be dollhouses built large-scale to fit the stars inside them, with lights and cameras and technical staff visible soon after we’ve been captivated by the beauty. It’s all pretend, the Coen brothers remind us, even this film you’re watching now, so suspend your disbelief — to a point.
THE PLOT is almost incidental to the many clever meta moments, and its resolutions come so easily that only icons like the Coens could get away with it. The central character, Eddie Mannix, is not the of head of a film studio but a “fixer,” an unidentifiable and mysterious role which basically has him, true to his unofficial title, fixing everything that goes wrong around the various sets of Capitol Pictures. He even ventures off the premises when needed, going personally to “rescue” an actress who’s having risqué photographs taken of her, slapping her across the face for her insubordination (he’s not sexist when it comes to whom he slaps, as he later gives a similar, even harsher, treatment to Whitlock) and taking her back home, easily maneuvering around the two cops who arrive at the scene to investigate — although it’s not clear exactly why they show up other than to be a pain in Mannix’s tukhes.
Over the course of three days in la-la land, we watch Mannix’s finagling unfold: procuring a leading actor at the last minute for a serious period piece; getting together a paltry (for Capitol Pictures) $100k ransom for the studio’s leading actor, Baird Whitlock, who’s starring in Capitol’s biggest film, a Christ story told through the eyes of a Roman skeptic-turned-convert; figuring out how to keep the foul-mouthed, pregnant-out-of-wedlock, and publicly wholesome DeeAnna Moran (Johansson) out of the tabloids for her exploits; wrangling with twin reporters, both played by Tilda Swinton, and convincing them not to write the columns they’re bound to write anyway, eventually; and, to top it all off, trying to make a decision about his own life’s course, in which he is being offered a job elsewhere with better pay and fewer hours.
The film’s genius lies in the group that kidnaps Baird Whitlock for a day. This action would represent the main conflict of the film, except that Mannix has no time for main conflicts, since there are too many going on at once. Mysterious kidnappers? Just another item to tick off the list. Not so for the audience. The kidnapping group is made up of embittered scriptwriters. The film’s narrator — another device the Coens use to remind us that we’re indeed inside a story and nothing more — tells us quite plainly, before we have any evidence of the fact, that the kidnappers are a Communist cell, one that has ironically convened, bourgeoisie-like, in a very large and fancy beach house. They hold all the trappings of a certain kind of privilege: pipes, fusty suits or sweaters, a wealthy patron to keep them in liquor. There is even a small dog taking the place of the traditional mean-spirited cat as the villain’s favorite handheld pet. This apparent villain, the man behind the kidnapping operation, the Communists’ head honcho, as it were, is also hinted at as being gay — another irony, for when he sets sail in a Soviet submarine at the end of the film, dog in hand, he is heading towards a Mother Russia that these days has harsh anti-LGBTQ laws.
But back to the writers, the Communists who no doubt will be or have been investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee: They are apparent ideologues who want to tip the scales of power, bringing them — the common men, for so they see themselves — more of the money that the pictures they’ve written bring to Capitol Studios, which earns more capital (as the writers explain to Whitlock) than either the writers or actors, which is, according to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, not the way things should be. Plays on words throughout the film are rather heavy-handed — Whitlock isn’t much of a wit; DeeAnn Moran is a bit of a moron who has sex and gets pregnant; Mannix is, well, manic in terms of how much he works; C. C. the film editor sees the films and cuts them together... it goes on.
But here, with the politely angry screenwriters, there is more than just the silly effect, there is a real issue at hand. They call themselves The Future in their ransom missives to the studio. And, indeed, the fight for better pay is going on up to this day: One Hollywood exec makes more than a bunch of screenwriters put together. Are the Coen brothers making fun of the Writers Guild of America strike in 2007-08, or supporting it through their satirical approach to the drastic measures writers could conceivably take? The writers don’t actually get any money in the end, but since they’re so ideological they don’t seem to care so much.
In the end, the biggest issue with the film is its indecisiveness about what it wants to be: a satire about Hollywood in the ‘50s, Hollywood now, both, or neither. It’s unclear whether the Coens are trying to say something or just be funny. They use the tropes of Hollywood and of the era in which the film takes place to great effect, but what exactly is that effect, other than a meandering and relatively engaging romp? That is ultimately why the film really does seem like a big -HA!- thrown at the audience. Then again, I don’t mind. I’m a sucker for what the Coen brothers made: a spectacle, a screwball comedy, and a film with just enough political hints to allow me, as the audience, to take away from the film just as much or as little serious thought as I want.
Ilana Masad, a fiction writer, is a columnist for McSweeney’s and has contributed to The Rumpus, The Toast, and the Chicago Tribune literary supplement. Masad is an Israeli-American who spent most of her childhood in Israel, with twice-a-year visits to the U.S., and now lives in New York.