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Senate Mental Journey: Hail Caesar! Reviewed
Robert Bright , March 4th, 2016 08:23

Robert Bright reviews the Coen Brother's affectionate swipe at the 1950's Hollywood system

There’s a scene, early on in the Coen Brothers’ latest film, where the studio fixer, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), is looking at some of the rushes from Capitol Pictures’ latest big budget venture, the eponymously titled sword and sandals epic, Hail, Caesar! The scene is supposed to include a cutaway to Jesus of Nazareth, but this has yet to be filmed, so in its place is an intertitle that reads ‘DIVINE PRESENCE TO BE SHOT’. It’s a typical Coen Brothers gag, taking the literal and loading it with metaphysical depth, tempting the audience to philosophize on the death of God while at the same time putting it in a context that insists nothing be taken too seriously.

This tension defines the Coen Brothers precarious brand of comedy, like laughing at someone make pratfalls on a frozen lake but knowing that at any moment the ice might crack and you could soon be watching them drown. It’s also echoed in their style which mixes realism and fantasy, the generic and the contemporary, in ambiguous and often unsettling ways, throwing the audience off balance. As Ethan once put it, “We don’t give cues about how you’re supposed to react.” In the past this was inclined to alienate some people and led to accusations of them of being too aloof or elitist, creating clever but soulless pastiches of Old Hollywood classics by directors like Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder. Much of this sprung from critics being denied a convenient pigeonhole, and seventeen films later their work still defies categorization as anything other that ‘Coenesque’.

So where does Hail, Caesar! fit in their august body of work? If the Coen’s comedy runs on a spectrum from inky black to light grey, this is at the lighter end, with a tone and atmosphere reminiscent of O Brother Where Art Thou, The Hudsucker Proxy and Raising Arizona. We’re in the realm of caricatures rather than characters, and despite revolving around a day in the life of Eddie Mannix, it’s very much an ensemble piece, with a raft of Hollywood A-listers turning in what are essentially extended cameos. There are obvious links to 1991’s Barton Fink, given both films are set at the fictional Capitol Studios in Hollywood and both are period pieces, but Barton Fink’s brooding, surreal neo-noir style has as much in the way of gravity as Hail, Caesar! does levity.

The main plot is simple and MacGuffinish. Star of the Quo Vadis-inspired Hail, Caesar!, the affably vacant Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is drugged on set and kidnapped by a group calling themselves ‘The Future’, who demand $100,000 for his release. Meanwhile, Mannix is fighting fires elsewhere: a potential scandal is brewing over the unmarried pregnant star of aqua-musicals, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), a brassy, streetwise New Yorker; there are teething problems trying to change the image of bandy-legged singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into that of an urbane sophisticate fit for a drawing-room melodrama directed by British luvvie, Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes); meanwhile twin gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton) are threatening ruin Baird Whitlock’s image altogether by breaking a story about his early days in show business; and on a personal level, Mannix is being courted by aeronautics giant Lockheed, which want him to abandon his job “babysitting a lot of oddballs and misfits” in frivolous, make-believe Hollywood, and do something “serious”. Just how serious is made clear by Lockheed’s representative, Cuddahy (Ian Blackman), who shows Mannix a photo of a mushroom cloud from the recently tested hydrogen bomb. “This is the real world,” he says pointedly.

But reality is a relative and mutable concept, especially on a film set, and especially when the Coen Brothers are involved. So we get Baird Whitlock in full Roman Legion regalia telling his captors he’s not really a student of history, or the devout Catholic Mannix seeking spiritual guidance on a set that’s meant to represent Golgotha, or religious leaders gathered to talk about the depiction of Christ in the film who instead take issue with the credibility of some of the stunts. Such playfulness extends to the style of the whole film, where the 1950s Technicolor sheen of the Capitol Pictures productions bleeds into everything else, so a scene involving Mannix and his wife at home starts to take on the quality of a 1950s advert for washing powder, or the arrival of a nuclear submarine off the coast of Malibu has a deliberately staged appearance. It’s never simply a matter of reproducing the same technical processes from Hollywood’s Golden Age (Hail, Caesar! uses state of the art digital effects to create these illusions), but it does foreground the artifice in a way that keeps the nature of the medium in the audience’s mind.

This leads to one of the broader themes in Hail, Caesar!, namely how our realities are shaped by our fictions in the first place. When Lockheed’s headhunter Cuddahy shows Mannix that picture of the mushroom cloud, Mannix responds by nodding and saying, “Armageddon”. Both infer the end of the world, but for one of them it’s a manifestation of a millennia-old ‘fiction’ in the shape of religious prophecy, and for the other it’s the evidential product of 'scientific progress’, the force responsible for shooting the divine presence and taking its place, ushering the prophecy’s fiction into fact.

For all the potential to muse on subtext, the film, like all of the Coen's work, holds fast to principles established by Old Hollywood legends like Preston Sturges in the influential Sullivan’s Travels (1941), namely that the director’s first job is to tell the story, and that above all else the story should be entertaining. Hail, Caesar! gives us entertainment in spades.

Ultimately, it’s as Mannix himself puts it to Baird, “This picture has worth, and you have worth if you serve the picture.” For all his time spent in the confessional box, Mannix is Hail, Caesar!’s priestly – even Christ-like - figure. He is the man who redeems Hollywood’s dreams by keeping its nightmares to himself. It’s a heavy burden to carry, but it’s one that marks him out as a very Coen Brothers kind of hero.

Hail Caesar! is in cinemas now