Hail, Caesar!

March 15, 2016

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“This is real.”,  the Lockheed representative tells Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the Capital Pictures studio “fixer” while holding a picture of the detonation of the hydrogen bomb in the Bikini Atholl.  It is part of a somewhat ill-conceived headhunting ploy, where the rep tries to hide his contempt for the pointless frivolity of Hollywood and the job Mannix does.  He wants him to leave the studio and work for them, ironically explaining that it’s actually a much easier job with better benefits and more reasonable hours.  Mannix is up at all hours putting out fires for the contracted studio players so as to protect the studio’s image and assets.  Hail, Caesar! follows roughly 24 hours in Mannix’s life in a job that is, quite frankly, glorified babysitting.  An unmarried pregnant star, the bizarre decision by the owner of the studio to promote a B-list Western singer/stuntman into the leading role of an elegant drama, and most pressing of all, the kidnapping of the studio’s biggest star in the midst of filming the titular epic. 

It is the latest Coen Brothers comedy, and by that I have to add “straight comedy”, as most of their dramas tend to blur the lines.  It is, if I were to refine the categorization, their latest film without any serious dramatic element.  As such it can seem very light, which I suppose it is, but as with their last comparable film, Burn After Reading, “light” does not mean frivolous.  The crux of that theme is in the scene quoted above – though in that case, nothing was real.  It wasn’t that the MacGuffin was just a MacGuffin, it was that it was also dogshit.  There’s one of those here, and it’s treated as such (it sinks to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in favor of a dance man’s dog), but it is nothing more than the thinnest of threads to hang a series of vignettes depicting a Day in the Life of Mannix.  Through his eyes the Coens have found a delivery system for all their love (mocking and all) of Golden Age of Hollywood.

That Golden Age is actually about three decade’s worth all shoehorned into the early 50s (hokey sing-song oaters, aqua musicals, Navy-themed hoofers, and sword and sandal epics), given them and returning DP Roger Deakins a playground of largely defunct genres to dabble in.  Even when these films are related, they are only so tangentially, with perhaps one character moving into the A plot surrounding kidnapped movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) before exiting again.  At other times there’s no connection at all, as with Scarlett Johansson’s pregnant swimming star.

That looseness contributes to the lightweight feeling of the film, and though it can’t be denied that it’s not their most outwardly substantial work, it’s indicative of just how far they’ve mastered their craft as storytellers that it’s so damn rich.  The dimwit star is captured by Communist screenwriters who are actually in league with the Russians (if only in a minor and somewhat pointless way), and they manage to pull the dimwit star on their side while admitting that they’ve been dropping in pro-communist themes into their scripts – a funny enough gag given the HUAC hearings and conservative paranoia.  The punchline takes a while to come, but there it is, in a climactic, corny speech in the titular film that is, of course, rife with communist ideas. 

There’s a genuine sweetness running counter to the jabs at the communists and the capitalists and, in the notable theological argument, the religious, and it comes most obviously in Alden Ehrenreich’s earnest cowboy stuntman Hobie Doyle, who picks up a young starlet in an arranged publicity stunt while boyishly performing lasso tricks in the street.  When his tender song about the moon is overshadowed by some absurdly stupid slapstick, he enjoys the genuine laughter it elicits and joins in the crowd. 

That sweetness is slightly disarming though not, I’d argue, as lacking in their work (especially recently) as many critics claim.  Take a step back and from the context of the period, you know this Golden Age is coming to a close.  Mannix should take the job with Lockheed, but his decision not to isn’t laced with irony or mockery, but with an elegiac sense of what comes close to nobility, for if there’s a central thesis (underlined by the oft-mentioned Catholic theme), it’s that everything is a joke, but this joke happens to be worth the trouble.

-M

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