Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlet Johansson, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum
PG-13 106 minutes
The Coen Brothers have written, directed and produced more than fifteen films. They have paid homage to American movie genres like the gangster film e.g., “Miller’s Crossing”), and film noir (e.g., “Blood Simple,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There”), while sustaining a post-modern perspective characterized by eccentricity, sardonic humor, and arch irony. I’ve liked and admired some Coen films a great deal including the cult favorite “The Big Lebowski” — an idiosyncratic “stoner” shaggy-dog comedy with a stunning central performance by Jeff Bridges as “The Dude,” and “Fargo” — a black comedy that won two Academy Awards.
Two films of theirs that I found operated on a much deeper level were: “A Serious Man” which was by far the most personal and profound film the Coens have made — mixing Yiddish fable, suburban satire, and a poignant vision of human beings stumbling around in a universe without order or meaning; and “Inside Llewyn Davis” — a poignant, subtle work that unfolds as a melancholy ballad about a gifted folk singer who is doomed to a life of failure.
But they also made less ambitious films like the remakes of “The Lady Killers” and the arguably taut “True Grit.” Their latest, “Hail, Caesar!” finds the Coens in a much lighter, utterly comic mode. Set in Hollywood around 1951, it centers on a couple of days in the life of Eddie Mannix (a strong performance by Josh Brolin) who is the president of physical production for Capital Pictures. Mannix is a guilt-ridden, confession-besotted Catholic, who has a gift for problem-solving, and works a 16-hour day. The fictional Mannix is a much better man than the real Eddie Mannix — a production executive and fixer for MGM who was written off as a villain and gangster by some, and who was seen as having a hand in covering up everyday wrongdoings like car wrecks and pregnancies, and also some of the most horrible scandals in the history of Hollywood.
Mannix has to deal with competing twin gossip columnists aggressively looking for dirt; a singing, seemingly innocent, acrobatic cowboy star who is asked to put on a tux and do drawing-room drama, but can’t pronounce the director’s name; and a brash, voluptuous pregnant swimming star without a husband, who doesn’t want to marry the child’s father.
The film’s central plot depicts Mannix trying to recover the slightly dim star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) of a Roman sword and sandal epic who has been kidnapped by Communist screenwriters who feel exploited by the capitalist studios. He also conducts a focus group with religious leaders trying to make sure an epic with Christ, as one of its characters, won’t offend them — the scene nimbly poking fun at religious sectarianism.
The plot matters little to the Coens, as the film drops away from it often to send up Hollywood genre films of the period made on Capital Pictures’ lots and sound stages. They include a big production, homoerotic song and dance number where sailors (Channing Tatum doing a skillful variation on Gene Kelly) tap dance on tables and with brooms, and a Busby Berkley-like choreographed water ballet number where the blonde star (Scarlet Johansson) emerges from the water in a skintight, shimmering mermaid costume, which turns out to be too small for her.
The Coens know their Hollywood history and lore, and fill the film with references to the actors and films of the period from Carmen Miranda to Gabby Hayes, from “Anchors Aweigh” to “The Robe.” The scenes with the disgruntled Communist screenwriters who call themselves “The Future,” sends up their revolutionary pretensions, as they try to convince Whitlock that the truth lies in the “dialectic,” and in economics. Baird is even instructed in Marxist logic by of all people, Professor Marcuse — the intellectual icon of the New Left. The whole conceit is funny and smart, but doesn’t go far enough. The scene makes it plain how absurd the “Red Scare” was to turn these men into threats to the nation. Still, even though the screenwriters may have been in the main well-paid, ineffectual armchair leftists, being Party members or fellow travelers meant their lives were genuinely scarred by the Hollywood blacklist. The Coens can sometimes be too superior and clever for their own good.
As always, the Coens provide seamless direction, richly recreating the old film genres and Hollywood without indulging in crude caricature. And the ensemble of stars provides winning performances, without any of them asked to do too much.
The Coens love Hollywood and the entertaining pap that it creates too much to do more than gently satirize it. I would have liked a sharper, tougher satire, but in Hail Caesar, the Coens are satisfied with being merely witty and diverting.