[February 6, 2016]
Some of Joel and Ethan Coen’s comedies are pretty near perfect (see O Brother, Where Art Thou?), and some are a bag of mis-matched shoes (don’t see Burn After Reading or Intolerable Cruelty). The latest effort, Hail, Caesar!, just might be the best of all.
The film depicts a single, hectic day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), “Head of Physical Production” at Capitol Picture Studios, back in the booming 1950’s. It’s Eddie’s job, when DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johannson), a twice-divorced ingénue, turns up pregnant, to create a plan for her to “go away for a rest,” and come back having “adopted” her own baby. When Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), director of high-toned romances, can’t get the sentence “Would that it were so simple” out of cowboy-actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), it’s Eddie’s job to listen, nod, and calm him down. When Hobie explains that he’s more used to acting in a barnyard setting (“It’s talking, and it’s people listening, which threw me a little at first”), Eddie listens, nods, and reassures. When the twin mosquitos, rival gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), are getting too close to a landmine of an old rumor, well, sometimes all Eddie can do is step away briskly, clutching to his chest a briefcase stuffed with $100,000.
The reason for the briefcase is that Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), “one of the biggest stars in the world,” has been kidnapped. That morning he’d been chewing up the scenery as the Roman tribune Autolycus, the leading role in “Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ.” Then they broke for lunch, and nobody’s seen him since.
Then a ransom note arrives for Eddie, demanding that princely sum. (Not so princely, by movie-studio standards; Eddie picks it up from petty cash.) The note bears a mysterious signature: “Who are we? We are the future.”
It’s hard to list all the things that make Hail, Caesar! so good. Right off the top, it’s an elaborate, eye-pleasing contraption, and each of its parts is magnificent, and mighty fun to watch. Since it’s set at a major studio in the 1950s, we get clips representing all the familiar genres of the era: a sword-and-sandals epic, a water ballet spectacle, a genteel comedy of manners, a singing-cowboy romance. Perhaps most impressive is a big musical number with a dozen singing-and-dancing sailors, and the kind of precise, athletic choreography no one’s attempted since Gene Kelly.
We get another period piece, wrapped around those exemplary clips, in the mystery of Baird Whitlock’s kidnapping. The Coens dress it up like a Hitchcock flick, with knockout drops, fancy cars, a narrow highway skirting the ocean cliffs, and an arty, fashionable home in a secluded curve of beach. This summary is so busy that the movie might sound chaotic, but the pieces fit together satisfyingly. It starts out big and sprawling, like Eddie’s complicated job; then it focuses in, as the Baird Whitlock kidnapping becomes the main action.
Yet even that story is not the movie’s real theme; there’s a quieter one behind it. A big corporation is wooing Eddie, offering him more money, better hours, even early retirement. No more 24-hour days, trying to wrangle creatively-insane movie stars. He would have more time for his family—and Eddie cares about his family. In the midst of the biggest crisis of the day, his wife phones with worries about their son’s baseball game, and Eddie gives her all his thoughtful attention.
What’s more, the man from Lockheed tells him, it’ll be meaningful work for a change. Movies are just stupid entertainment. (And doomed: once everybody gets a TV, who’s going to go to the movies?) But at Lockheed, the headhunter tells him, Eddie would be doing important work, affecting the future of humankind, and he proudly shows Eddie a photo of the mushroom cloud above Bikini Atoll.
So there’s a quieter, more serious storyline wrapped around the Whitlock kidnapping farce, which is wrapped in turn around a candy box of midcentury movie delights. In that cast of outsized characters, Eddie is the only one who’s quiet. He’s thoughtful and serious. He makes his way through this exhausting day, with the Lockheed alternative on his mind. But we don’t hear him open his heart till he’s in the confessional.
For that’s the most surprising thing about Hail, Caesar!: Eddie is a devout Catholic, and his faith is treated with respect. It literally grounds the film, for both the opening and the ending show him going to confession. (The priest, who is used to being routed out of bed for confession roughly every 24 hours, says to Eddie, “It’s really too often, my son.”)
I didn’t expect the movie to begin with liturgical chant, and a close-up of the life-size wooden crucifix in Eddie’s church. I didn’t expect it to conclude (just before Eddie’s latter confession) with Baird Whitlock in Roman attire, standing at the foot of the Cross and delivering an extended and theologically-accurate speech about the Son of God. And there’s not a wisp of irony in the room.
Irony has been a mainstay of Coen brothers comedies, with The Hudsucker Proxy perhaps most brittle, and Raising Arizona most surreal. They’re terrific movies, but at the moment I’m just noting that irony has long been one of Coens’s prime ingredients. Come along to The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? and things don’t feel as mannered and strained; you even empathize with and care about some of the characters (notably dumb, doomed Donny in Lebowski). I remember going into the screening of O Brother braced for two hours of Southern corn-pone ridicule, and finding characters who were charming and sympathetic, if not exactly heroic.
But Eddie is heroic. This is something new. Hobie turns out to be heroic, too. Baird is stupid, but you can’t have everything. And DeeAnna makes a homely man very happy.
There are plenty of inside-Hollywood movies about sneaks, rats, and connivers. There aren’t many about good guys—people with power, money, and influence who still have a conscience and want to do the right thing. In Hail, Caesar! the Coens ask whether there’s any point in making movies, whether it’s an undertaking worthy of the best years of a person’s life. We can be glad that, in their own case, they answered Yes.