True Hollywood Story

Nick Pinkerton on Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar!

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, Hail, Caesar!, 2016, 35 mm, color, sound, 106 minutes. Baird Whitlock (George Clooney).

JOEL AND ETHAN COEN’S HAIL, CAESAR! is the most deliriously enjoyable photoplay to open wide in what’s thus far been a pretty barren new year—and also a seriously funny comedy of ideas, a film of Das Kapital and Capitol Studios, of hermeneutics and the dialectic, all given the bickering story conference treatment.

An ensemble piece set in the twilight of the studio-system era, Hail, Caesar! concerns the goings-on in and around the lots of Capitol. The backbone of the story—and the foreman on Capitol’s production line—is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the studio’s head of physical production, a punctual, efficient taskmaster who keeps his drug-addled, promiscuous stars in line and out of the scandal sheets. While Eddie deals with his latest crisis, the kidnapping of star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from the set of the eponymous film-within-a-film biblical epic, he’s stuck by a crisis of faith. Not religious faith—we see that devout Catholic Mannix, who lives by his wristwatch, is as punctilious in his taking of confession as in his business—but a crisis of faith in the future of the pictures. With a job offer from Lockheed on the table, Mannix suddenly has to ask himself what a level-headed guy like him is doing in a loopy business like this, anyhow.

The Lockheed exec who’s wooing Mannix lets slip about a secret hydrogen bomb test that, along with a line about incoming competition from television and veiled references to the tightening strictures of the Hollywood blacklist, sets the scene at the beginning of the 1950s. While considering his options for the years ahead and trying to suss out the identity of the group called “The Future” who’ve made off with Whitlock and demanded a $100,000 ransom, Mannix has other fires to put out, including finding a solution to the out-of-wedlock pregnancy of Esther Williams–esque water ballet starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), staving off identical twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton, costumed like exotic insects by Mary Zophres), and finessing a transition to drawing-room comedy by hayseed singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), under the tutelage of ascot-wearing sophisto director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).

As with their work on the screenplay to Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (2015), which showed an enormous pleasure in quibbling over fine points of contractual language, the Coens fill their latest with angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin disputation, as in an interfaith conference held over potential offenses in Hail, Caesar! at Capitol or a communist study group, meetings that respectively devolve into bickering over the natures of divinity and of man. (“We’re not talking about money,” goes a typical bit of doubletalk, “we’re talking about economics.”) In a film chockablock with diaphragm-wracking laughs, however, perhaps the most dangerous scene involves Laurentz trying, through endless repetition, to coach the hopelessly cracker barrel Doyle to “trippingly” enunciate a line, or to produce a “mirthless chuckle.” Later we see a rough assemblage of the scene, Doyle’s dialogue pared down to “It’s…complicated.” In such solutions to insoluble dilemmas, we see the fabled genius of the system.

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, Hail, Caesar!, 2016, 35 mm, color, sound, 106 minutes. DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson).

The chain-smoking doyenne of the editing suite who plays back the scene, C. C. Calhoun (Frances McDormand), seems likely based on Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Margaret Booth, one of a slew of the movie’s Golden Age Hollywood in-jokes. A Latin song-and-dance starlet (Veronica Osorio) shares the name of Vertigo’s Carlotta Valdez—significant, or just a red herring to tempt film nerds? A whispered rumor that’s dogged Whitlock from the set of an early film, On Wings as Eagles (the title is always accompanied by the cry of a distant bird), probably avers to a bit of lore involving George Cukor and Clark Gable, while Brolin’s Mannix is a clear reference to, well, Eddie Mannix, a Roman Catholic “fixer” who was in the employ of MGM until his death in 1963. (He reports to “Nick Skank” in New York, instead of the real Mannix’s boss, Loew’s chief Nicholas Schenck.) The Coens even reference themselves, for Capitol Studios also signed checks for John Turturro’s Barton Fink in the 1991 movie of the same name.

While cinephile critics will grant their favorite director artistic license when dealing with most any other corner of history, they’re less forgiving when license is taken with the movies. And it is true that the singing cowboy craze and the “continental” romantic dramas parodied in Hail, Caesar! were more typical of an earlier period in Hollywood, and of course the 1.85:1 aspect ratio used on these films-within-the-film wouldn’t have been in use before 1953. When issuing such quibbles, however, we should bear in mind that we are dealing with a movie that depicts a claque of Communist Party USA–affiliated screenwriters (and…Herbert Marcuse?) rowing out to meet a Soviet sub as it surfaces off the coast of Malibu, in a composition that parodies Washington Crossing the Delaware, accompanied by a solemn Russian choral dirge.

This nautical vignette, with its deliberate matte-paintings-and-miniatures artifice, echoes a soundstage song-and-dance number seen earlier in the movie, in which hoofer Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) leads a rowdy end-of-shore-leave showstopper that by its big finish has evoked Fassbinder/Genet’s Querelle as much as Gene Kelly’s Anchors Aweigh (1945). Though introduced from the perspective of Mannix, waiting in the wings, the set piece is presented as it might look as an assembled finished product, and from the very beginning of Hail, Caesar!, when the opening title of the sword-and-sandals megaproduction (subtitled The Story of the Christ) does double duty as the title card for the Coens’ movie, the relationship between the grandiloquently narrated goings-on on the Capitol Studios lot and what’s happening in their products are helplessly entangled. This is, in short, a historically inaccurate movie about an entertainment-industrial complex that specializes in reckless historical inaccuracy, a Hail, Caesar! that’s no more trustworthy as Hollywood history than The Story of the Christ is as a document of life in the Roman Empire during the reign of Tiberius.

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, Hail, Caesar!, 2016, 35 mm, color, sound, 106 minutes. Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum).

While the Coens enjoy brand name popularity today, there are many who’ve pegged them as glib closet revanchists, and Hail, Caesar! is unlikely to change any minds, with plenty to offend both auteurists (a burlesqued John Ford fill-in) and committed materialists. (Per an old Francophone joke, the anarchistic brothers are best categorized politically as “Marxiste, tendance Groucho.”) Variously frowsy, joyless, and superannuated, the Communist screenwriters are a grotesquerie of fanaticism, closer to the nihilists in The Big Lebowski (1998) than to their actual historical analogues. While Capitol and capitalist Hollywood retell their own story of Christ, the Commies are enacting their modern-dress tale of “sticking up for the little guy,” everyone a lead in the movie in their own mind. Far from being contemptuous of the Dream Factory product, however, the Coens have tried their hand at every genre referred to here: The Western (No Country for Old Men, True Grit), the musical (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, with its Busby Berkeley KKK rally), even, after a fashion, the religious epic (A Serious Man). The knock on the brothers has traditionally been that they don’t love their characters—but how they cherish their actors! They’ve given Tatum the best old-fashioned musical number in an American movie this side of Christopher Walken’s dirty boogie in Pennies from Heaven (1981)—a film with which Hail, Caesar! shares more than a few thematic concerns. Brolin, crisp, pressed, and self-contained, is the platonic ideal of a straight man, while Clooney’s clownish, easily indoctrinated dupe is a riotous send-up of political faddishness in the movie colony—all the funnier given the fact that Clooney, mercifully free of Sean Penn self-seriousness, is playing the part. The Coens have also abetted more than a few breakout performances in their day, from Michael Stuhlbarg to Oscar Isaac, and here the discovery is Ehrenreich, perfect when turning on a dime to hard heroism when brought into Mannix’s confidence, or when entertaining a studio-appointed date with lasso tricks on a nightclub outing that could come straight from a period romance.

Doyle and his date are coming from the premiere of his latest, Lazy Ol’ Moon, which we see a snippet of: Doyle croons during a bit of knockabout comic relief in which a drunken cowpoke, chasing the moon and mistaking its reflection for the real thing, belly flops into a watering trough. This dumb pratfall encapsulates the organizing motif of Hail, Caesar!—the conflation of representation and reality—and exemplifies the Coens’ knack for smuggling big ideas in inconsequential-looking packages, the direct inverse of the more usually praised equation of dinky ideas and ponderous style. Hail, Caesar! takes place in a kingdom of illusion, where a cowboy can become a gentleman, an arranged romance or a marriage of convenience can turn into the real deal, and a single actress can be split into twins. The opposed doctrines of the age aren’t solved here, but dissolved: Kingdom of Heaven is the End of History, the light of the Lord is the beam of the projector (“a truth told not in words but in light,” per Whitlock’s climactic monologue), the succor of religion is the succor of the cinema, and the Imitation of Christ is the Second Coming, captured once and for all in glorious Technicolor.

Hail, Caesar! opens in theaters Friday, February 5.