The Most Beautiful Fraud: Hail, Caesar!
As often as the Coen Brothers are referred to as pastiche artists, their films tend to be pretty thematically consistent, with the genre-bending taking place more on the level of the filmmaking than the narrative. Their newest movie, Hail! Caesar, gives them a chance to exercise it in truth, with its early 1950s Hollywood studio setting; we get little snippets of musicals, oaters, drawing-room dramas, leather-and-steel Biblical epics, and extravagant underwater ballets as we follow harried Capitol fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) through an exhausting day of chasing down his errant stars. It’s one of many testaments to Joel and Ethan’s talents as filmmakers that you could easily see yourself watching and enjoying any of the pictures within the picture; the mermaid musical starring a gorgeous Scarlett Johansson is particularly stunning, reminding us that, as we last saw in The Big Lebowski almost two decades ago, they really known how to stage an elaborate number.
Mannix is based on a real person, but he bears only a passing resemblance to the real thing. He’s a character who believes so fervently in the power of motion pictures that he agonizes over minor trangressions to a weary priest, and passes up a sure thing in the form of a job offer from a major defense contractor to keep covering up for pregnant starlets and closeted directors. Eddie suffers a long night of the soul when he makes that decision, but the joke, like so many in Coen Brothers movies, is on all of us: we know that he seems to make the obvious moral choice by refusing to quit his job and go to work for a company that manufactures hydrogen bombs, but it’s hilariously obvious that his chosen profession is no more noble, as he has to forever tend to egomaniacal lunkheads and the people who enable them.
Whether or not you think the Coens are supreme cynics or secret tenderhearts, you’ll find plenty of ammunition here. Certainly the two derive genuine and obvious enjoyment out of romping all around the same studio that employed Barton Fink during the film’s tight 24-hour storytelling window; they sincerely love old Hollywood and have a grand old time playing with its building blocks. But they’re also keenly attuned to the absurdity of it all, with the devout family man Mannix breaking his neck to protect the reputation of the louche, amoral leading man Baird Whitlock, who, after being kidnapped by a gang of curiously larcenous Communist scriptwriters, begins breezily reeling off Marxist dogma as if he were talking about a new fad diet he’d just read about. (Brolin’s Mannix bears only a passing resemblance to the real Hollywood fixer; perhaps the most accurate, and most hilarious, depiction of a real person is veteran British character actor John Bluthal as Frankfurt School mastermind Herbert Marcuse, a brilliant thinker and legendary hater of popular culture, who acts appropriately horrified as Whitlock cheerily spins him a yarn about having to shave Danny Kaye’s back.)
So, are they kidding us, or what? Of course they are: Hail! Caesar is, after all, a comedy, and it’s filled with tons of hilarious business, some of it subtle (Mannix trying to keep a group of religious leaders focused as he vets the screenplay for his Bible epic), some of it obvious (genteel director Ralph Fiennes attempting to teach proper diction to his cowpoke leading man), some of it so completely and absurdly over the top that, in the hands of a less confident director, it would be ridiculous (the cawing of a mysterious eagle every time someone mentions Whitlock’s involvement in a scandalous casting decision). It’s probably their funniest movie since O Brother Where Art Thou, the film it most resembles in theme and tone.
But there’s an awful lot going on under the surface, too. The story of the Christ, referenced in the title and forming the basis of the fictional Capitol Pictures project that is at the center of the plot, has a mirror in Brolin’s temptation and rebirth, but that’s mostly played for laughs; anyone taking it to seriously would have a bad case of that Barton Fink feeling. Perhaps more importantly, they’re definitely saying some meta-something about the process of filmmaking, and perhaps about the expectations of audiences vs. the demands of studios, and very likely about the way we define ourselves by our work, no matter how frivolous it happens to be. But whatever it’s trying to say, it doesn’t try very hard, and is probably making fun of us for doing so. (Perhaps the biggest tip-off may be the presence of one “Dennis Diderot” in the opening credits of one of Capitol’s corny westerns.)
And yet all that stuff is there, bubbling right under the surface, daring us not to notice it and then pulling the rug out from under us if we do. The Coens have an absolutely genius for this, for packing their films with meaning and then taunting us for trying to suss them out; that was the supreme lesson of Burn After Reading, one of their most underrated efforts, and it’s unquestionably present here as well, hinted at most strongly when a red herring of a subplot involving Mannix’s son resolves without impact and Brolin confusedly mutters “Well, that worked itself out”. All that curious casting, all those Biblical trials, all that Communist chatter — it has to mean something, doesn’t it?
Probably. But the Coens have another gift for being just the right amount of cynical at just the right time; to paraphrase Aristotle, they have the ability to hate the right people in the right amount at the right time and for the right purpose. Whatever points they’re trying to make are there for us to pick apart over the multiple viewings Hail! Caesar deserves and will undoubtedly benefit from; in the meantime, though, they’ve gifted us with tons of memorable scenes, dozens of great performances (Tilda Swinton is terrific in a dual role, the commie screenwriters are an agglomeration of great character actors, and both Alden Ehrenrich and Heather Goldenhersch are great finds), and one of the most surprisingly happy, good-feeling movies they’ve ever made. The joke may be on us, but it’s a damn good joke.