As filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen have a couple of primary modes. In their dramas, like Blood Simple, The Man Who Wasn't There, and No Country For Old Men, ordinary people confront the absurdity of life, generally make the wrong choices, and are punished for it. In their comedies, like Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Burn After Reading, extraordinary people seem oblivious to the absurdity of life as it beats them down, punishes the innocent, and usually lets the guilty go free. There's a lot of variety in the Coens' formula, and an extremely wide range of tones. But all of their stories eventually come down to the question of whether the protagonists have any sort of personal moral compass, whether they follow it, and how the world punishes them if they stray from it.
The pattern continues in their latest, the broad, gleeful Hollywood comedy Hail, Caesar! It's another farce, not as wandering as Big Lebowski or as goofy as Hudsucker Proxy, but with some of the former's outsized characters, and the latter's swooning love of Golden Age cinema. In a blind viewing, the average cinephile could probably identify it as a Coen Brothers picture, because it has so many of their signatures: serious people taking ridiculous situations with grave equanimity, straight-faced film references, a stable of distractingly famous people taking on cameo-level roles, and George Clooney playing an affable, noisy nitwit. Again, the central theme is a man following his code — more successfully than most Coen characters — and the lines between drama and comedy get blurred. But so do the lines of what makes a good story. Hail, Caesar! is immensely entertaining, but it's also frustratingly discursive, with so many incomplete sidelines and distractions that it suggests an overcrowded but exciting TV pilot more than a self-contained film.
This time, Clooney's nitwit is an oblivious movie star named Baird Whitlock. He's one of the headliners at Capitol Pictures, a major Hollywood studio openly based on MGM in the 1940s and '50s. Hail, Caesar! is full of specific real-world references, but it's impossible to pin down the film's exact setting, because those references range across nearly 15 years: the sword-and-sandals epic Baird is currently working on is essentially Ben-Hur, which came out in 1959, but Capitol's other works in progress are clearly modeled on Esther Williams and Gene Kelly pictures from the '40s and '50s, with a dash of 1958's South Pacific in a racy sailors' song called "No Dames." One character references the recent atomic tests at Bikini Atoll, which started in 1946, and a group of communist-sympathizer writers nods to Dalton Trumbo's political activities in the 1940s. But a reference to the looming influence of home television sets suggests the early 1950s. In this film, two decades of cultural and political change boil down to a single antic day, as a studio fixer tries to keep Capitol running smoothly.
Josh Brolin plays the fixer, Eddie Mannix, based on a real MGM producer and problem solver of the same name. The film's version of Eddie is a hands-on guy whose duties range widely: he personally extracts a starlet from an illicit photo shoot, charms two nosy gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton, in a series of Hedda Hopper hats), oversees a contentious religious think-tank that's checking Baird's Jesus epic for blasphemy, and troubleshoots for directors hampered by the weather, their casts, and their pasts. He's a fast, decisive thinker who doesn't examine his choices once he's made them. But the future troubles him: he's been offered a cushy position at the aviation company Lockheed, which wants his problem-solving capacities put to better use. "You'd be running a business, not a circus," says the flak trying to seduce him away from the studio. And, even more dismissively, about movies in general: "It's all make-believe."
Most of the best-known feature films about filmmaking are about the frustrations of the business, and most of them feature characters touching on the big existential questions: "Why do I do this?" "Is it really possible to make art under these conditions?" "Am I selling out?" "Should I get out of the business while I can?" And most importantly, "Is everyone in Hollywood but me a shallow, egotistical ninny?" Hail, Caesar! deals with the questions more directly than most, as Eddie tries to respectfully navigate everyone's agendas, while wondering whether the Lockheed job would be a better use of his time.
But while he's divided on the question, the film itself is unabashedly enamored with Hollywood. The film mostly takes place on the Capitol lot, and the Coens take frequent time-outs for long, uninterrupted takes of the movies being made — not just moving out from behind the camera to watch the performances, but taking the audience-eye view of finished, polished scenes from Baird's historical epic, a dance musical, a sleek Broadway drama adaptation, an aquatic ballet, and a gimmicky western.
Each of those films provides its own plot distractions. The swords-and-sandals epic (also called Hail, Caesar!) is shut down when Baird is kidnapped and held for ransom. The star of the aquamusical, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson, standing in for swim star Esther Williams), is unmarried and pregnant, which will become a scandal if the newspapers catch on before Eddie can set her up with a husband. The star of the dance musical, Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum, tap-dancing and grinning like a maniac) appears to be an all-American male ingénue, but has a secret agenda. The western star, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), is an authentic aw-shucks cowboy kid, but the studio has decided to change his image by shoving him into a sophisticate's role in the Broadway adaptation, to the fury of its director (Ralph Fiennes). And yet amid all this business with all these major stars, few of them get more than a couple of short scenes. This is ultimately Eddie's story; everyone else is just a complication.
Given all these complications, Hail, Caesar! often winds up feeling manic and imbalanced. And many of these characters and their storylines are more intriguing than Eddie's Lockheed predicament. Johansson in particular is the kind of character who would normally take center stage in a Coens comedy. Onscreen, she's a model of silent, smiling elegance; offscreen, she's brassy, frank, and loud, with the suspicious scowl and clipped cadences of an overworked Queens housewife. And Ehrenreich is a standout as Hobie, whose innocent singing-cowboy role isn't a put-on. Like Roy Rogers or Gene Autry, he comes from a real ranch-hand background. He betrays it every time he crosses a set with a gunslinger's rolling gait, or warns Eddie about all the "extrees" coming and going on the set. He's reminiscent of Stark Sands' role in the Coens' Inside Llewyn Davis, as a sweet, soft-eyed soldier who comes across as vulnerable even when he's standing up for himself.
It's a strange mark of distinction that even the bit players in Coen movies are so specific and memorable that they can be distracting. When Baird winds up in the company of those Communist Party-affiliated screenwriters, the script doesn't bother naming half of them, but the Coens cast such distinctive and familiar faces that they all seem ready to break out into their own scenes. (David Krumholtz and Fisher Stevens are recognizable among them, and so is Girls' Alex Karpovsky, lurking in the background as a photographer who's so menacing that he suggests an entire storyline cut from the final feature.) There's an underlying sense of frustration during most scenes, in that it feels like something more interesting might be happening with other characters on another sound stage. That's unusual for a Coens farce, but it's a mark of how successfully the characters in Hail, Caesar! capture the audience's imagination and evoke the way Old Hollywood kept its charismatic stars under wraps, doling them out deliberately to whet the fans' appetites.
There are no villains in Hail, Caesar!, or even malicious people. There are just conflicting agendas, and Eddie's growing weariness over the messes he has to manage. The enemy in the film is time: as that Lockheed exec points out, the nuclear age is approaching, television is about to take over the culture, and Hollywood is looking increasingly irrelevant. As much as the Coens reference specific MGM pictures from shot to shot, they're also drawing heavily on Singin' In The Rain, with its sense of looming, sweeping industry change on the horizon. (A lengthy scene where Hobie tries to wrap his natural drawl around his new highfalutin lines is cribbed directly from the film. So is the shot where he drives out of town, neon lights reflected in his car window.) Hail, Caesar!'s period setting lets the Coens pay homage to a bygone era of cinema, but also serves as a backdrop for a more existential feeling of the end of an era.
as Coen movies go, this is one of their most upbeat and optimistic
Hail, Caesar! is a frequently distracted comedy that doesn't take full advantage of its assets, particularly its cast and the characters they play. Tonally, it's all over the place — an editing-booth scene with Frances McDormand packs in wacky Looney Tunes sound effects, while Michael Gambon's lugubrious but goofy narration takes an entirely different tack. But it's more hit than miss, in part because it clearly comes from a deep well of affection for the movies, for the people who make them, and for the industry where people still presumably struggle every day not to sell out. There's a little self-importance in the topic, echoing movies from Sullivan's Travels to Birdman in letting the people onscreen praise the importance of art and artists on behalf of the filmmakers behind the screen. But as Coen movies go, this is one of the most upbeat and optimistic, one of the few to suggest that good people can have happy endings. Classic Hollywood wouldn't have it any other way.