via Right On
their films have examined just about every nook and cranny of the American milieu, from white trash in rural Texas (No Country for Old Men) to puffed-up, pretentious government employees (Burn After Reading) to naive, gullible Midwesterners (Fargo). The Coens have honed their craft to such a degree that even their dud films (The Ladykillers, The Hudsucker Proxy) are still interesting to watch.
The Coens’ films are defined by their willingness to examine aspects
of American life that are usually wallpapered over by both Leftists and
conservatives. 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis is a tale of a man who failed at life during the most prosperous period in American history; The Big Lebowski is about a ’60s hippie burnout dealing with a world that’s left him behind; A Serious Man
examines emasculation and matriarchy in Jewish culture. While their
films borrow stylistically from directors of the past, the Coens are
capable of making what they steal their own, unlike other postmodern
hacks such as Quentin Tarantino.
Hail, Caesar!, the Coens’ latest film, continues their
tradition of lifting up the floorboards of American culture to reveal
the rot underneath. A savage look at Hollywood’s Golden Age, Hail, Caesar!
is another display of the Coens’ ability to weave comedy and suspense
into a cohesive whole. While it falls short of greatness, it’s funny
enough to make it worth a watch.
Set in the 1950s, Hail, Caesar! revolves around Capitol
Pictures production head Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) and his quest to
keep his stars’ scandals out of the public eye. The title refers to the
studio’s feature movie, a Cecil B. DeMille-esque production on the life
of Christ. The plot is set into motion when Baird Whitlock (George
Clooney), the dopey, alcoholic star of the aforementioned film, is
kidnapped by a gang of Communist screenwriters.
Hail, Caesar!‘s central plot is fairly threadbare by the
Coens’ standards; the film’s emphasis is on the idiocies of Capitol
Pictures’ actors and directors. Much screen time is dedicated to
Mannix’s quest to arrange a sham marriage for DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett
Johansson) after she gets knocked up out of wedlock, as well as “singing
cowboy” Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) coping with being horribly
miscast in a period drama. The film also makes time for a hilariously
homoerotic Fred Astaire-style dance number starring closeted Marxist
Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum).
The movie succeeds due to the Coens’ comedic touch and attention to
detail. Little things, such as Baird Whitlock spending most of the film
in a Roman toga and getting his sword holster stuck on chairs, are what
sell the movie and keep the laughs coming. For his part, Clooney steals
the show; his character’s aggressive idiocy is a callback to his roles
in previous Coen films such as Burn After Reading and O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Coen brothers are masters of using “negative space”: what they
don’t emphasize in their films is almost as important as what they do. Hail, Caesar!‘s
unstated theme is image: the artificiality of Hollywood and popular
culture at large. The film is defined by the phoniness of its
characters, whether it’s Mannix working to keep a lid on his stars’
indiscretions, Moran arranging a fake adoption to cover up her
pregnancy, or a pair of gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton)
threatening to publish rumors about Whitlock’s homosexuality.
The Coens previously explored the manufactured nature of the movie industry in Barton Fink,
which depicted Hollywood in its infancy. That film’s titular
protagonist found himself crushed between his high-art Broadway
pretensions and the mass-market drivel he was expected to write. Hail, Caesar! depicts a Hollywood reeling from the 1948 United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. decision, in which the Supreme Court dismantled the studio system under antitrust laws.
While TCM and Robert Osbourne may paint a rosy picture of Hollywood’s
Golden Age, the reality is that the Paramount decision effectively
ended it. Hail, Caesar! shows the movie industry’s fall from
grace in the ’50s and ’60s, as they resorted to increasingly bombastic
productions such as Cleopatra and How the West Was Won
to maintain profitability and compete with the emerging medium of
television. The film is aided by cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose
glossy, colorful landscapes, flimsy sound stages, and poorly-designed
props (for example, an animatronic whale near the beginning had me
howling) accurately recreate the artificiality of 1950s cinema.
For all its farcical whimsy, though, Hail, Caesar! is also a tribute to one of the few filmmakers who rose above the pomp and circumstance of his time: Alfred Hitchcock. While Barton Fink alluded to Hitchcock as well (most notably in imitating the train tunnel “sex scene” at the end of North by Northwest), Hail, Caesar! ups the ante by naming one of its minor characters “Carlotta Valdez,” a reference to Vertigo. The film also draws inspiration from other 1950’s Hitchcock thrillers such as The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Alfred Hitchcock was one of the first film directors to examine the
artificiality and constructed nature of movies themselves. Everything
about Hitch’s films, from his much-publicized cameos to the plots
themselves, focuses on the blurry line between reality and fiction in
Hollywood. North by Northwest is about an ordinary man mistaken for a spy who, by the end of the film, has become a spy of his own volition; Rear Window merges Jimmy Stewart’s character’s perspective with the audience’s, turning them into Peeping Toms; Psycho depicts a man so distraught by his mother’s death that he assumes her identity.
As overrated as it is by critics, Vertigo is the best example of Hitchcock’s motif of film as deception. At its heart, Vertigo is a story about image:
Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) falls in love with a woman pretending
to be someone she is not, who is in turn pretending to be possessed by
the ghost of her great-grandmother. She’s a matryoshka doll of false
identities, her relationship with Scottie a Jenga tower of lies.
Scottie’s madness and desperation to recreate his fake relationship with
Madeleine is a commentary on movie audiences, who choose to deceive
themselves for entertainment.
Similarly, Hail, Caesar! is a commentary on nostalgia among
film buffs and the golden era they mythologize. It also serves as a
warning about the state of modern Hollywood. Capitol Pictures’ obsession
with high-budget spectacle has eerie parallels to today’s film
industry, which is piling its money into sequels, special effects and
comic book movies in a desperate attempt to keep ticket sales from declining. Innovative, visionary directors such as David Lynch have been handed their pink slips as movie studios pump out schlock like Guardians of the Galaxy, Mad Max, and an endless succession of Star Trek and Star Wars sequels. Just as the Golden Age of Hollywood ended, this situation cannot last.
As thin as its central plot may be, Hail, Caesar!‘s
big-picture analysis and attention to detail provide enough guffaws to
make it well worth watching. All hail the Coen brothers: they haven’t
let us down yet.