Monday. July 11, 2016.
Channing Tatum in a scene from Wes Anderson’s not yet made next movie as imagined by the Coen Brothers in their definitely made movie Hail, Caesar!
Leaving aside that the Coen Brothers’ funniest movie is their best drama, Fargo:
On the one hand you have Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother Where Art Thou?
On the other you have The Ladykillers, Burn After Reading, and Intolerable Cruelty.
Where would I put Hail, Caesar! then?
Over there, across the room, below Moonrise Kingdom but just above Darjeeling Limited.
For some reason, the Coens decided to make a Wes Anderson movie. Maybe just because it seemed like it would be fun.
There are scenes and characters that could have come straight out of Anderson’s imagination. There’s a dollhouse-building artificiality to much of the film and the Coens allow themselves moments of very un-Coen Brothers-like whimsicality. Casting Tilda Swinton in a dual role as feuding gossip columnist twin sisters seems like an Anderson touch not least because Swinton has become one of Anderson’s stock players. George Clooney is a longtime member of the Coens’ stock company but he’s also Anderson’s Fantastic Mister Fox. Ralph Feinnes starred in Anderson’s most recent and best film to date The Grand Budapest Hotel. There’s a sequence involving a dory full of communist writers in identical black sou’westers rowing out to a rendezvous with a Russian submarine that looks like a live-action recreation of a stop-motion capture cartoon that Wes Anderson himself might have made and might yet make if he sees Hail, Caesar! and gets inspired.
The Coens’ idea of fun is different from Anderson’s. In fact, sometimes I think their idea of fun is closer to that of scientists’ or mathematicians’ than to other artists’. Seems as though they like devising problems to solve and then coming up with the proofs. They’re like moral physicists.
There’s a word for people who do that for a living. Philosophers.
The problem they’ve set themselves to solve in Hail, Caesar! is one they’ve been working out through many of their movies---maybe even all of them:
There is no God.
Life has no meaning or purpose.
If there is no God, then was Dostoevsky right, are all things permitted? If life has no meaning or purpose, what do we have to live for? What gives us hope? What makes life worth living? How can be be good without God?
In various movies, the Coens’ answers to those questions have been Yes, Nothing, Nothing, Nothing, and We can’t.
In other movies, their answers have been Yes, Nothing, Nothing, Nothing, and We pretend.
We pretend that life has meaning and purpose. We act as if we matter. We act as if God is watching. And we help each other out with that.
Raising Arizona, Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and True Grit are movies that offer those answers to those questions.
In Hail, Caesar! the same problem is put in the form of the same questions, and the answers turn out to be the same as in Raising Arizona, Fargo, and the other two but with one addition, summarized in one short declarative.
If life has no meaning or purpose, what do we have to live for? What gives us hope? What makes life worth living?
Why, the movies, of course!
Hail, Caesar! Is a movie for people who love movies. All kinds of movies. Westerns, musicals, dramas, mysteries, biblical and historical epics, doesn’t matter. Good or bad doesn’t matter. From all we can tell, the movies we see being made in Hail, Caesar! Could be classics in the making or utter schlock. It’s hard to tell. They’re all pastiches.
The religious epic, the kidnapping of whose star by communists is at the center of Hail, Caeser!, has elements of Ben-Hur, Quo Vadis?, and The Robe. The Gene Kelly-esque musical owes a lot to the Kelly-in-a-sailor suit On the Town and Anchors Aweigh but it also borrows from South Pacific and its big dance number is set in a waterfront dive bar that I think is meant to evoke the movies-within-a movie numbers from Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon but looked to me more like the realistic dive bar settings of the private eye movies those movies were parodying. And a scene from the Roy Rogers-style singing cowboy movie that’s meant to be comedic looks like a quote from The Searchers with a tangential reference to Shane or like as scene from The Searchers filmed against a backscreen projection of the set of Shane.
Hail, Caesar! ---the Coens’ movie itself not the movie with the same title being filmed within the movie---is a pastiche. It’s mainly shot in the style of a noirish detective film with the main character following in the footsteps of the likes of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. But there are plenty of Hitchcockian touches with visual quotes from Vertigo and North by Northwest. But the Coens don’t limit their references to any periods, styles, or genres. I swear I caught allusions to The Player, The Last Tycoon, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, The Cheap Detective, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? But I’m not sure they were intentional or if what the Coens intended was that the audience would make their own connections. There are scenes and shots, snatches of dialog and passages of background music that look and sound like they must be quotes or references to specific movies and might be or might be the Coens playing with our heads, tricking us into thinking I know that one! When there’s no particular that one to know. And characters and incidents are drawn from real life but the biographies and histories are mixed up. All the way through, the Coens had me ransacking the film library in my head trying to tag and sort out the references.
The point is, however, that the particular movies being alluded to are beside the point. The quality of the movies, the ones alluded to and the movies-within-this movie the Coens use to do the alluding, doesn’t matter. Even what any of these movies are about, even the type of movies they are doesn’t matter. What matters is that these movies are being made and that they are made things.
Set in 1951 (-ish. The Coens aren’t sticklers about the historical background), Hail, Caesar tells the story of two days in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the studio manager at Capitol Pictures (where the ill-fated screenwriter Barton Fink came to no good ten years before). Eddie's job is to make sure all the movies Capitol is making get made. Answering only to the the telephone presence of the unseen studio head, Mr Skank, Eddie oversees the practical matters of production, getting the individual producers and directors the budgets, stars, casts, designers, technicians, and stage hands they need. But another important part of his job is to see that the movies sell. And that isn’t simply a matter of convincing the ticket-buying public individual movies are worth the price of admission.
It’s supporting people’s need to believe that movies---all movies---matter, that the dream worlds they portray are in some vital and necessary way more real than the world we’re forced to inhabit.
“People don’t want facts,” Eddie tells one of the gossip columnist twins who’s defending a column that could ruin the reputation of Capitol’s biggest star on the grounds that it’s factual, “They want to believe.”
What they want to believe in is an illusion but that doesn’t mean they want to be under an illusion. They simply want to believe that the illusions movies purvey are can be realized, that beauty and nobility and decency are there if you look for them, that justice is possible, that love can triumph, that happy endings occasionally occur, that there’s reason to hope and things to hope for. They want to believe that life has meaning and purpose beyond merely surviving. They want to believe that most people are inherently good, that they themselves are good, that their existence matters. And this is the good movies do. Movies assure people it’s ok to believe in all that, most importantly that they matter.
Which is why it’s imperative that movies get made. Hail, Caesar! is a movie that postulates that making movies is a moral endeavor. Making movies---making art---is a practical necessity. There’s a character who doesn’t work in the movie business who sneers at moviemaking as a frivolous waste of Eddie’s time and talent but that character is the voice of the devil.
Except for that character, there are no out and out villains in Hail, Caesar!, no one determined to do anyone harm. The threat Eddie has to head off is existential and comes in the form of multiple temptations to other characters to shake the public’s belief and destroy their illusions, leaving them nothing instead except the tawdry facts of human nature and ugly and dispiriting realities of life in the world of un-make-believe.
The communist writers who kidnap the star aren’t villains, they’re just wrong-headed, their thinking warped by, well, too much thinking. They’ve theorized themselves into forgetting what movies are for. They see moviemaking as a purely economic and political enterprise. The twin gossip columnists are haughty, vain, and self-important bullies but they aren’t truly bad people. But they’re carried away by their self-serving conviction that what their readers want are those tawdry facts and dispiriting realities because that’s the truth. Meanwhile, another star’s out of wedlock pregnancy isn’t a subject for moral judgment. It’s just trouble because if the news gets out it could shatter her wholesome image and make it impossible for her to make any more of the kind of movies audiences need her to make, which would hurt the studio’s bottom line and make it difficult for Capital to make any kinds of movies.
Eddie’s biggest problems are his stars. His main task in life seems to be cleaning up messes made by actors in their personal lives and keeping the facts out of the news and so from the movie-going public. Unfortunately, this requires clandestine and routinely dishonest wheeling and dealing on his part and that weighs heavily on his devout Catholic conscience and sends him into the confessional on what appears to be a twice a day basis.
But Eddie faces his own temptation and it comes from that character I identified as the voice of the devil. He’s a headhunter for Lockheed Aircraft trying to recruit Eddie to come work as highly-paid executive for them. The job offer is a good one and very tempting to Eddie who has a family to provide for and whom he wants to spend more time with. But accepting it requires an implicit rejection of moviemaking as a serious endeavor, that is, as real work that has and provides meaning for those who do the work and those who need the work to be done. And Lockheed’s business is explicitly tied to the Military-Industrial Complex. In taking the job, Eddie would be contributing the growing gloom and doom of the Cold War. Instead of being in the business of making people’s lives brighter, he’d be going to work making death machines.
This all seems like a burdensome theme for what’s essentially a farce to carry.
I’m having my usual problem making a comedy sound funny.
Hail, Caesar! isn’t as funny as it should be or could be. The Coens let too much gloom seep in, tonally and visually. Colors are washed out, which seems wrong for a movie about moviemaking set in the days when Technicolor was the rage. Scenery and costumes look dingy, which is probably a thematic choice but doesn’t exactly help lighten the mood. The pacing lags from time to time. No movies from that period, not even the melodramas, were played with the lugubriousness of some of the scenes in Hail, Caesar! in which eliciting laughs not tears is supposedly the intention. And there’s a dearth of high spirits among the characters. None of them seems to be really enjoying their privileged and relatively carefree lives, with two notable exceptions.
One of the movie genres the Coens don’t make use of (or make fun of or have fun with) is romantic comedy. This struck me as an odd oversight on their part, considering their cast of characters includes a pair of very attractive potential young lovers who tentatively begin a romance played by a pair of very attractive young actors with great chemistry both sexual and comedic.
Alden Ehrenreich plays Hobie Doyle, the Roy Rogers-like cowboy star forced by the studio’s need to capitalize on his draw at the box office to change his image and become the sophisticated, tuxedo-wearing leading man of elegant melodramas and drawing room comedies, and Veronica Osorio plays a Latina comedienne and song and dance star famous for wearing fruit on her heads a la Carmen Miranda. Ehrenreich makes Hobie every bit the good guy as he appears to be in his westerns (It also looks like Ehrenreich himself can really ride horses and do rope tricks) and Osorio is quite frankly a living doll.
But the Coens give them just two scenes together (in which they appear to be having the time of their lives) and only Hobie is sent out to help Eddie solve the mystery. This is not just too bad it’s, again, an odd oversight, as there are long-established movie traditions of young lovers being brought together by older male leads and couples falling in love while solving a mystery together.
It’s still a funny movie, though, shot through with visual and verbal incongruities and absurdities and carried along by snappy dialog that’s often found poetry---”What’s his wife say?” “He’s not home. He’s never home. He’s a louse. Try one of his chippies.”---“God’s a bachelor. And he’s very angry.” “He used to be angry.” “What? He got over it?”---The cell of communist screenwriters, led by a cheerfully and enthusiastically pedantic Max Baker and including a pugnacious David Krumholtz looking like a Ben Shahn drawing come to life, is a scathing group portrait of people who’ve turned themselves into caricatures by defining themselves by their rigid ideologies. There’s a hilarious scene in which Eddie tries to get some clergymen to give their approval to the script for his biblical epic that’s an extended riff on every a priest, a minister, and a rabbi joke ever told with a Greek Orthodox patriarch thrown in for added measure. And the movie stars playing movie stars and other denizens of Capitol Picture’s studios and hangers-on deliver fine comic performances, particularly George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, and Ralph Fiennes.
As the vainglorious ham Baird Whitlock, Clooney does a variation on a type he’s played for the Coens before, in O Brother, Intolerable Cruelty, and Burn After Reading, the vain, over-confident but not particularly bright charmer who thinks he’s a lot smarter than he is. Whitlock has a habit of falling in love with every script he’s handed to the point that he can’t bear to have a single word of his dialog changed and he reacts to the writers’ explanation of why they’ve kidnapped him---something to do with taking over the means of production to serve the interests of “the little man”---as if they’re giving him a screenplay with a big part for him to play. He becomes an instant disciple of Karl Marx.
Johansson, as DeAnna Moran, the Esther Williams-like star of watery musicals, makes the most of her two short scenes. The joke is in the difference between DeAnna’s wholesome onscreen image and her real life gun moll persona. (Reminded that one of her ex-husbands was a minor gangster, she defends the bum: “Vince was not minah.”) Johansson has obvious fun being a tough, side-of-the-mouth talking dame and I suspect she was taking the opportunity to let fans and critics know what her career plans are for when she’s done being an action-adventure star and romantic lead---character actress.
Fiennes gets his laughs by playing his character straight. Laurence Laurentz is an Ernst Lubitsch manqué, an effete and pretentious director of elegant melodramas and drawing room comedies, who is every bit the artistic genius he thinks he is It’s his film that Hobie is shoehorned into by the studio and it’s his challenge to turn Hobie from a likable enough cowboy star into a serious actor.
I loved how in an almost throwaway moment the Coens reveal what a fine director Laurentz is and that Hobie is truly a talented actor.
Swinton, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand, and Christopher Lambert (prosthetically, cosmetically, and tonsorially disguised) earn their laughs, and I think I made clear my fondness for Ehrenreich and Osario. But my favorite among the supporting players may be Heather Goldenhersh as Eddie’s jittery secretary Natalie.
Natalie is devoted to her boss, quick to deal with any task he assigns. But the job wears on her nerves. If Eddie takes on the sins of his wayward stars, Natalie takes on his worries and cares. It’s as if her chief duty is to be nervous on his behalf. Goldenhersh shows us Natalie’s determination to be cheerful, brisk, and dependable on the outside but also how on the inside she’s a nervous wreck. She’s brave and does what needs to be done, but we can see that she’s terrified to answer the phone because of who might be calling and in what sort of distress they might be in and how much trouble it’s going to mean for her boss.
Now about her boss…
Eddie Mannix is a part that could have been played by Clark Gable in his late middle age, which makes me wonder if the Coens had initially considered giving the role to Clooney. It’s also a part that would have been well-suited to the older James Cagney who, in fact, played a similar character in Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three (speaking of movies in which an older male lead brings a pair of young lovers together.), the schedule-obsessed Coca-Cola executive C.R. MacNamara trying to keep his own band of screwballs in line and facing his own Communist menace as he’s attempting to negotiate a business deal in Cold War Berlin, and there’s another movie I don’t know if the Coens were actually referencing or if I’m just making my own connections. Brolin gives his Eddie touches of both Gable and Cagney. There’s some of Gable’s rough-hewn, con artist’s charm and some of Cagney’s pugnacious impatience. But he’s more care-worn and self-doubting than I can remember ever seeing either Gable or Cagney and in that way he reminded me of Humphrey Bogart.
Brolin has shown himself a gifted impressionist, doing a more than passable George W. Bush in W. and an uncannily exact Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black III, but if those touches of Gable, Cagney, and Bogart are there, and it’s not just another case of the Coens tricking me into projecting, he isn’t doing an impression of any or all those Golden Age stars. Nor is his performance a pastiche. Eddie is all Brolin’s own and since Hail, Caesar! Is Eddie’s story, it’s Brolin’s movie. He’s in command of every scene. The perfect straight man, he gives his castmates lots of room to strut their stuff but sets the limits and keeps them grounded, giving them a reality they have to keep coming back to.
Eddie is hard-headed without being cynical, moral without being judgmental, a truly decent man who makes only one demand on his wayward flock of screwballs and egomaniacs, that they keep the first commandment of his peculiar faith.
“Don’t forget why we’re all here!”
“The picture has worth,” he scolds Whitlock when the star returns from his time with the communists full of their politics and thinking himself some kind of rebel against the system, “And you have worth as long as you serve the picture!”
The picture is the movie being made at the moment, but it’s also the illusion. The illusion that life has purpose and meaning that art helps foster.
We’re all in this together, helping each other foster and maintain the illusion. We all serve the picture, and the picture has worth, and in that way we make sure that we have worth, to each other and to ourselves.
Hail, Caesar! written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Heather Goldenhersh, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Veronica Osario, Alison Pill, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum. Rated PG-13. Now available on DVD and Blu-ray and to watch instantly at Amazon.