The Coens go to Hollywood...
A Coens picture is always a Coens picture but some are more Coens than others. While brothers Joel and Ethan have never set out to make a mainstream hit that cleaves to formula (let’s not forget that The Hudsucker Proxy, a fairytale-flavoured ode to the Hula Hoop-cum-stylised satire of big business, was their attempt at a studio movie), they do make films with crossover potential. Crime thrillers Fargo and No Country For Old Men, say: suspense, set-pieces and streamlined narratives, resulting in box office and Oscars.
Hail, Caesar! is not one of those movies. It is undiluted, absolute Coens, spring-loaded with cinematic chicanery and showing the arch tricksters at their most playful – or, put another way, insular. Remember the picture on the wall in Barton Fink, or the spacecraft in The Man Who Wasn’t There, or the Yiddish prologue in A Serious Man?
This is those Coens, juggling genres for their own amusement, spinning head-scratching themes and motifs which may or may not mean anything, and once more inviting legitimate accusations (as if they care) of smart aleck-ry and emotional distance.
Set in the 1950s over a 27-hour period, Hail, Caesar! opens on Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the Head of Physical Production at Capitol Pictures Studios, in a confessional box. It’s little wonder given all that his job entails: overseeing “this year’s ration of dreams for all the humble people of the world” (as the omniscient voiceover puts it) – movies that include a comedy-western, a sailor musical and a Biblical Roman epic – but also acting as fixer for a stable of stars.
Not easy in the case of an American sweetheart (Scarlett Johansson) whose wide white smile and flaxen hair camouflage a tough-talkin’, chain-smokin’ Brooklyn gal with two marriages behind her and a bump starting to show in front.
But now Mannix is himself in a fix: Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of prestige picture ‘Hail, Caesar! A Tale Of The Christ’, has been kidnapped. Raising the $100,000 ransom fee isn’t the issue so much as ensuring production continues to tick over and the true reason for Whitlock’s absence is kept under wraps.
Watch any of the Coens’ previous 16 features and it’s clear that they’re steeped in the history of movies. Here that deep affection, laced, naturally, with mischief and cynicism, is allowed direct expression. Hail, Caesar! is a love letter inked in arsenic, at once celebrating the artistry of Hollywood and cringing at the crass commercialism and rampant phoniness of it all.
As you’d expect, the brothers’ signature blend of humour – absurdist, deadpan, often just plain silly (this is the fourth numbskull Clooney has played for them) – is everywhere you look, not least on the wobbly sets of the films within the film: saddled with a dim-witted star of westerns on his Max Ophüls-alike melodrama ‘Merrily We Dance’, debonair filmmaker Laurence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes) directs him to deliver a “mirthless chuckle”.
We meet Johansson’s starlet playing a mermaid surrounded by synchronised swimmers and a spuming whale in a Busby Berkeley-esque musical number that is the match of The Dude’s surreal dream sequence in The Big Lebowski; Channing Tatum heads up a squad of tap-dancing sailors whose suggestive lyrics will surely test the limits of the Hays Code; Tilda Swinton plays twin-sister gossip columnists whose intense rivalry owes much to that of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons; and an actor being crucified on a cross is asked if he’s a principal player or an extra to establish if he merits a hot breakfast.
The industry in-jokes are nearly always funny, and also take in matte-painting backdrops; the old jibe, prevalent in Barton Fink, that writers are lowest on the food chain; and the holding intertitles in the dailies (‘Divine presence to be shot’), while the period-vernacular provides constant pleasure. But there’s more, with the shadow threats of McCarthyism and TV and even the atom bomb darkening the edges of the frame.
The significance of the many shots of water and clock faces, meanwhile, is open to debate, and a thesis could be written on the clashing of Catholicism and Communism and just what the brothers are trying to say – Ethan, it should not be forgotten, studied philosophy at Princeton, as important to the brothers’ movies as Joel’s studying of film at NYU.
Or maybe it all adds up to a big old pile of nothing and the joke is on anyone who tries to insist otherwise? Watch Hail, Caesar! and you can almost hear the Coens sniggering. And while not everyone will share their amusement, admirers of their body of work beyond the crossover hits will chortle right along with them.