Hail, Caesar! is pure Coen Brothers, but it does feel like one of their lesser efforts.
Like many Coen Brothers films, Hail, Caesar! is an exercise in narrative meandering, a slightly absurdist window into a specific historical or cultural milieu – in this case 1950s Hollywood, populated by ever-so-slightly larger than life characters doing things ever-so-slightly out of joint with our reality.
And how apt, because that fits in perfectly with the film itself, which painstakingly depicts the artifice that is the factory-floor filmmaking industry in the Hollywood of the fifties, as told through a series of loosely-interconnected ensemble stories tied together by the tenuous narrative thread of real-life Hollywood fixer, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin).
Mannix thunders through the fake sets and palm trees of Hollywood, dealing with the myriad problems of production, both above-board and below. He crafts cover stories for actresses pregnant out of wedlock, convinces a fussy director to take on a sub-par leading man for the sake of his brand, and fends off gossip columnist rivals hoping to get a salacious scoop over some of the more sordid secrets of the Hollywood set.
But his most pressing problem is the sudden kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) the star of one of the studio’s tentpole productions: Hail, Caesar!, a biblical epic set in Roman times. The affable but empty-headed Whitlock has been kidnapped by a cabal of genteel communists in return for a hefty ransom, and Mannix must get him back by all means possible.
Hail, Caesar! captures a kind of essence of Hollywood – a corpocratic wasteland of mass-manufactured entertainment, policed by a man who embodies the essence of the Good Company Man; studiously Catholic, works late nights, and struggles to do right by his employer, even if it means slapping an actress across the face. Hail, Caesar! is itself a film putatively dressed in the raiments of capitalist propaganda.
It is a presentation of a capitalist-affirming narrative arc, where the Good Company Man finds new meaning in his Good Capitalist Job, and a bunch of wacky, gormless communists get put in the slammer where they belong. The scene of a tap-dancing communist cell leader (Channing Tatum) fleeing to Mother Russia on a ghastly Soviet submarine off the Malibu coast is also part of this, a manifestation of Red Scare imagery.
Hail, Caesar! does lampoon the communists who mastermind the (surprisingly successful) kidnapping by having them be rhetoric-spouting ideologues and ivory-tower types. The pipe-smoking critical theory-declaiming Professor Marcuse (John Bluthal) is a sterling example of this – a declaimer of the dialectic and historical materialism who is completely flummoxed by Whitlock’s attempts to translate his ideological declamations into a more parochial context.
But in doing so, the film actually gives them a voice. Look past the lampoonery and the message actually resonates (although my reading of Horkheimer and Adorno makes me somewhat biased). The film itself is a meta-example of the kind of film that inures you to your place in the capitalist machine. Mannix finds absolution in remaining in Hollywood, producing cookie-cutter entertainment and managing his crop of carefully groomed starlets. His story is an example of the kinds of narrative arcs that inure moviegoers to “Hollywood values”, the kinds of platitudes that make you buy into the system by building up role-model protagonists that do so on the silver screen.
But then again, the film is a celebration of Hollywood as a historical milieu – the vaudeville set-pieces, the pompous Biblical epics, the celluloid and period trimmings, the Chinese restaurants and the trilbies. It appreciates the era as an indelible part of Americana.
In that regard, it contains similarities to that other Coen brothers film – Barton Fink, which is also a movie about Hollywood as mass entertainment. The difference is that Hail, Caesar! aims to be more subversive in its commentary. Where Barton Fink is about how Hollywood doesn’t appreciate art, Hail, Caesar! is a film – multiple films in a film – that is in itself an embodiment of how Hollywood doesn’t appreciate art – or, rather, manufactures a version of it that inures viewers to the capitalist machine.
It is quite the clever conceit, although on a surface level the film does suffer a little from it. For one, I think that the film’s biggest failing is that it doesn’t quite manage to use its impressive ensemble cast to maximum effect. There are actors in there that are criminally underused – Scarlett Johansson’s terrifically irascible aquatic ballet dancer, for one, as well as George Clooney as the somewhat spacey Whitlock and Tatum as the hilarious tap-dancing Soviet spy. The film just tries to juggle too much, and while it does so creditably, it’s at the expense of focusing on its more memorable characters – you won’t find analogues to Jesus Quintana or Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski in this film.
And I guess the flightiness of the film’s many great but underserved characters gives it a kind of weightless feeling, as if flitting from frivolity to frivolity. It makes for great fun, but perhaps by making the film a sly meta-commentary on the Hollywood tendency to propagandise the capitalist media miasma, Hail, Caesar! might be consigning itself, at least in its potential for pop-cultural appeal, to a kind of deliberate mediocrity – which among the repertoire of Coen brothers films is still something to be celebrated.
I give this film: 4 out of 5 Roman hip daggers