Hail, Caesar!
d. Joel & Ethan Coen (2016)

Hail, Caesar! is far from great, but even marking time, as they’re doing here, the Coen Brothers are still mesmerizing.

First things first: Hail, Caesar! is an absolute blast. Put very simply, it’s a supremely wry love-letter to movies. The ghosts of the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (who the real life Mannix kept out of jail with some deftly dodgy maneuvering) and Billy Wilder pervade many scenes. There’s still the obsession with mathematically neat (and yet still winsomely warped) and cleverly syncopated quick-fire, off-kilter exchanges, the kind that are nut-tight, scalpel-clean, and completely ridiculous. Every utterance in every Coen film is freighted with meta-meaning and cinematic or literary connotation, and in their lesser efforts this makes everything sag: too much cleverness, not enough freewheeling levity. That’s rarely the case here. There’s an infectious gleefulness to Hail, Caesar! exemplified by the performances of the three leads, all way off the leash. The exchanges are so exact that you buy every one. While you may be left wondering what you just watched, you certainly won’t feel duped.

Hail Caesar Poster

Josh Brolin is Eddie Mannix (a Hollywood “fixer,” which seems to mean spinning plates, juggling balls, not sleeping much, watching the till, banging heads, and disaster averting), as beleaguered as he is besotted by day-to-day 1940s Hollywood. He’s a man who needs to be, and is, everywhere at once (like Tilda Swinton, who plays twin gossip columnists, both of whom fall into Mannix’s step for an “exclusive” as he scurries between disasters). He busies himself wrangling studio-lot crises and, once George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock (Clooney here gamely taking on his third Coen halfwit) goes missing, finding him becomes Mannix’s priority. Whitlock is obviously a bit of an idiot, but he’s got “star quality” and guarantees ticket sales. When Whitlock is drugged by a lurking extra on the set of the movie within this movie, Hail, Caesar — a windy, broad Roman epic — before being kidnapped and ransomed by a communist enclave calling themselves “The Future,” nicely holed up in Malibu, Mannix has to deal with the issue and get him back in time for the crucial coda in the shadow of a crucified Christ (a messiah the hapless Whitlock has replaced, at least in this town).

Meanwhile, the excellent Alden Ehrenreich’s singing Western star Hobie Doyle has been drafted into a “serious” film (helmed by Ralph Fiennes’ fussy, dolorously debonair Laurence Laurentz) to broaden his audience appeal. But Doyle is incapable of shucking off his aw-shucks schtick and can’t pronounce his lines, let alone emote convincingly. This much to the futile indignity of the pompous director, unavoidably saddled as he is with his personable but useless box-office banker, as Mannix reminds him. Mannix, in private conversation with Doyle, lets the latter in on the kidnap plot, and Doyle muses, accurately as it so happens, on what may have happened to Whitlock. Doyle is soon spun into the “missing star” narrative, which at least provides him with a more conventional, appropriate plot strand than trying to display “range” for a testy auteur.

Whitlock is meanwhile being gently harangued by the often cantankerous commie ideologues, and is amenable to their disquisitions re: the movies being just one more part of the economic process and no more, mere exploited commercial product at the behest of the machine. He’s barely a captive, more a captive audience of one, to their dry conjecture. He wakes from his induced stupor and strolls into a makeshift symposium of leftist writers and agitators, and quickly makes himself at home amongst these polite but firm extorters. He soon enough has them all in his thrall with breezy anecdotage as they all await the release of the $100k demanded.

The ransom swag (taken as “petty cash” by Mannix from the in-house coffers), covertly collected by all-singing, all-dancing, soon-to-be-defecting Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum, who we first see, apropos very little, launching into a bar-room sailor routine that’s as exhilarating as it is bewildering), who will later be rowed out by the Marxist collective for a farewell rendezvous with a Russian submarine, eventually ends up dropped in the sea by Gurney and sunk (in what must surely be a candidate for best MacGuffin dispatchment in cinema) as opposed to bankrolling the cause, with the commies soon enough arrested, as Hobie Doyle, following Gurney as part of his extended undesignated role as gumshoe, picks up a solitary Baird Whitlock from the Malibu hideout. Did you follow?

At this point, if not before, the nonsensical nature of the story runs secondary to the main message of the piece: the movies, whilst susceptible to markets and monetary vacillations, are not really of “reality” and the mistake of considering them such needs to be forgotten as quickly as possible. Movies are a serious business, an inextricable element of an increasingly baffling human existence, particularly in the sense that they provide a vital opportunity to remain entirely unserious at vast, nose-thumbing cost. They are a seductive mode of spleen-venting or necessary catharsis, borne of gimmickry, packaged as entertainment, but evolved mysteriously and permanently into something vital, ineffable, unquantifiable, and indispensable, a fact that Mannix understands. He’s a gatekeeper of something slippery and largely intangible — but whatever it is happens over his shoulder while he puts out fires off-camera, and he feels it.

And here, life isn’t really life, it’s just life. Movies are the real deal. Once the lights are down we’re as good as inhabiting a parallel dimension, and the portal we’ve opened to fuse our brains with the screen has become a matter much larger than mere life and needs sleeves-rolled-up avatars like Eddie Mannix to keep it ticking over. Back home is a B-movie and jobs are jobs, and once you drive off the lot you feel the magic fade like a punctured tire hissing down to the rims. The place where fiction is made is the realest thing imaginable.

For example: the one time we see Brolin’s Mannix at home he’s sat at the kitchen table with his back to his wife in a distinctly unhomely, spartan space, badly lit and deeply humdrum, as he mulls over a job offer from The Lockheed Corporation, which would provide him with a stress-free existence comprising lunchtime bourbon, leisurely strolls across fairways and early retirement. But he’s a clear dyed-in-the-wool proponent of silver-screen magic, and would much rather, for example, slap the borrowed anti-movie invective that Baird Whitlock returns from Malibu with out of him whilst delivering surely the most rousingly sentimental lines ever put in the mouth of a Coen Brothers character. Ironically so, as well: this is set right at the end of the Golden Age, just before the studio monopoly was brought to an end. Eddie Mannix can’t know that as he blusters and games and deceives in the name of movies as the be-all-and-end-all, but we do, and it lends a cruel, apposite tinge to the finale. The studio lot, of course, a stage bearing daily witness to multiple insane dramas that Mannix brushes under the carpet, in the name of brassier, more tightly-constructed lies fit for mass consumption.

Hail, Caesar! often inescapably feels like a bit of a back-of-the-drawer rummage, and the vignettes the Coens pull out and stitch together in the name of movie adulation never quite combine to create a seamless totality. This sometimes feels like Frank Capra’s version of Mulholland Dr. There’s a long scene centered around mangled elocution, for example, which is glorious but preposterous, but it’s a double-bluff, like much of the film. For the most part we’re watching A-listers play A-listers-as-goofballs by way of paying homage not to any recognizable era, particularly, beyond hysterical pastiche — it’s a homage to a medium, the madness surrounding which is a sideshow. As much as the studios lean on star power, we helplessly delight in watching Channing Tatum run through, for no explainable reason (other than perhaps a high-stakes comment on the malleability of film grammar once tone is established), an elaborate dance number, and the sudden fleeting appearance of (a never better, despite the brevity of her role) Scarlett Johansson as another star needing a story to cover the career-threatening blemish of an illegitimate child. Eddie Mannix is happy riding the tails of such comets and unfussily shouldering skeletons back into closets, just as we’re bafflingly engaged by yet another superfluous subplot.

Case in point: Frances McDormand turns up as a spinsterish film editor locked away in darkness as the sun blazes outside, a strip of celluloid nearly garroting her as Brolin oversees her attempts at salvaging the imperiled piece of pseudo-sophistication gatecrashed by Hobie Doyle. The scene perfectly slots into the gestalt of the film — it’s breakneck, nightmarish insanity — and typifies the level of daring involved. The Coens aren’t holding back here. The whole thing is dialed up to 11 and seems to slowly accelerate, both in pacing and oddity.

I think the Coens want to implore us, fast enough that we forget the simplicity of the message, to remember that the story of cinema isn’t about the details, the era, the players per se: it’s about the curtailed madness, the screened-off madder-still world, the story and the magic and whatever improbably ends up on screen, regardless of finance and fixers and divas and astray leading men and crazy plots. Hail, Caesar! will disappear quickly and won’t be talked about amongst their notable work, as with The Hudsucker Proxy and the criminally underappreciated Burn after Reading. But it’s plenty more than one long in-joke. And to sustain this level of madness successfully over a film’s entirety takes nothing short of complete mastery of tone, so if nothing else, it’s an opportunity to watch a between-great-films duo limber up for something less zany and more memorable. Should such a parlous situation arise that the Coens — operating as they are in a TV-and-Marvel-franchise dominated era (TV being a looming inevitability that will squeeze the likes of Eddie Mannix’s livelihood) — can no longer subsidize their work, the Government should surely step in, pilfer the petty cash and fix it.

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