Directed by Ethan & Joel Coen
"Would that it were so simple?"
Hollywood in the 50s, populated with artists and control freaks, money men and predators, fed by gossip and rumour, paranoia and confusion. The studios' cash streams were being threatened by television, by being forced to sell off their interests in theatre chains, threatened by the Cold War and the Communist witch hunt. Actors and writers and producers and directors, anyone involved in the creation of film, were being closely watched for any subversive behaviour, for anything that seemed in the least bit odd or that hinted in any way of free-thinking. Anyone that had spoken out against Hitler before Pearl Harbour was now considered "prematurely antifascist" and was now considered a potential subversive and communist. Anyone that had worked for civil rights or equality or pretty well anything progressive was now considered a potential subversive and communist. That uncle that gets drunk at Christmas and rails agains gay marriage and feminism and thinks Donald Trump is just saying what everyone is thinking and dammit, things were so much better in the old days? Well, these were those old days, the fantasy that your drunk uncle wants to return to. When Hollywood sold the picket fences and apple pie and America the good and anything that wasn't rosy cheeks and smiles and straight was bad, bad, bad. After decades of progress, Hollywood took a hard turn right after the Second World War and wrote the world a cheque that your drunk uncle is still trying to cash. The world that Hollywood sold during those years? It never really existed. But, man, people bought into that fantasy.
People bought into that fantasy so hard it bit the Hollywood studio system right in the butt. Any unsubstantiated rumour, any sexual innuendo, anything that wasn't part of this clean cut, picket fences and apple pie fantasy could threaten a film's box office. Within a few years the Hollywood studio system which dictated to actors whom they could date, and which roles they would take, which dictated to directors and writers which films they would work on, would crash and burn and out of its ashes would rise the great maverick film makers of the 60s and 70s. The studios would again exert some control over the decades, with the advent of the blockbuster and the tentpole franchise film. But they would never again exert the societal control they once wielded.
Anyway, back to the post-war years of Hollywood. A time of historical and biblical epics with casts of thousands that rivalled D.W. Griffith's Intolerance in terms of scope and size and hubris. A time of drawing room dramas and musicals and dance numbers in swimming pools. And through this Technicolor and CinemaScope universe strode Eddie Mannix, fixer and enforcer for MGM, seriously bad dude. Seriously bad dude. There are a number of dead bodies connected to the charms of Eddie Mannix, George Reeves among them. Beatings and cut brake lines and threats and shootings were his way of handling anyone that displeased either him or his handlers at MGM. Check this guy out sometime, he was a thug and a gangster given a suit and an office on a studio lot.
And what, dear reader, does any of this history lesson have to do with the new Coen Brothers' film? How does this preamble connect to Hail, Caesar?
Hail, Caesar! is set in the early 50s, maybe 1951 or 1954, and follows a day in the life of a fictional Eddie Mannix, executive at Capitol Films, as he puts out fires and deals with casting decisions dictated by the bosses in New York and handles the kidnapping of one of his biggest stars. This Eddie Mannix is a family man, a good Catholic who carries guilt for the most minor of offences. A man caught up in a hurricane of chaos just trying to do what's right. In other words, a Coen Brothers hero. Hail, Caesar! touches upon pretty well everything up top - communist writers and proper public behaviour of the stars and unplanned pregnancies and biblical epics starring mediocre actors and atrocious writing and drawing room dramas starring a singing cowboy. Josh Brolin's Eddie Mannix juggles all the balls, deals with each crisis before it can turn into a catastrophe all the while being courted by Lockheed with promises of better hours, better pay and less stress and weirdos. Mr. Brolin is just about sublime as this fictional Mannix, all the hard edges dulled by a common decency and respect.
The cast of this thing is like a who's who list of talent. Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Alison Pill, Fisher Stevens, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Patrick Fischler, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, and many more, show up for small roles and have a dump truck full of fun. I can't really think of any recent film that has cast more Oscar nominees and winners in what are essentially extended cameos. George Clooney plays another dunce for the Coens, a leading man who shows up for a battle of wits unarmed, all smiles and charm but clearly nothing going on behind the eyes but self-involvement and very little talent. And somehow, in one of those flukes of Hollywood history, even in a film filled to the brim with talent and faces that everyone will recognize, the film is pretty well stolen by Alden Ehrenreich, a 26 year-old with only a handful of supporting roles on his IMDB page. As Hobie Doyle the singing cowboy who finds himself cast in a very serious melodrama, Merrily We Dance, and struggling with both his accent and atrocious dialogue, Alden Ehrenreich is transcendent, a real discovery, a star-making turn comparable to Oscar Isaak in Inside Llewyn Davis. He takes a role that could have just been a Gene Autry parody and makes it real and sincere, no ironic winking or putting on airs. He is so good that I've been practicing spelling his name. Alden Ehrenreich. Remember that name.
Hail, Caesar! is both a love letter and a middle finger to Hollywood. For example, as the stars of the film-within-the-film, Hail, Caesar!, one of those classic 50s Bibles and dust epics with a cast of thousands, George Clooney and Clancy Brown play Romans with very midwest American accents. When Jesus does show up in the fake film, he inexplicably has long straight blonde hair. It's this kind of attention to detail that permeates the real Hail, Casear!, the obviously painted back drops, the stilted dialogue used on the film sets. It's not nearly as hateful of Hollywood as The Player, but it's not all roses and back rubs either. The movie is more sausage factory than it is the glamour of filmmaking, more inside baseball than most people are comfortable with. And that's probably why it's having a hard time finding an audience.
The film is like a serious of set pieces with little to connect them but Josh Brolin's character. There are many highlights here. One of them is Eddie Mannix holding a meeting with four religious figures trying to determine if there is anything controversial in his Bible film while also courting their approval of the film. The meeting starts cordial but nearly spirals out of control with a couple of the religious types trying to out passive-aggressive each other and the rabbi just calling them all nuts. Another is the dance numbers. There are two, one for "No Dames" starring Channing Tatum and a bunch of dancing sailors in a Fred Astaire/Gene Kelly style number and Scarlett Johansson wearing a mermaid's tail in an Esther Williams number that ends with her needing help getting out of her "fish ass". It's just that at times it feels like a series of skits with little connecting tissue, more Amazon Women on the Moon than Tropic Thunder. And while I really do like the movie, I think that it might hinder the movie, prevent it from being a great Coen Brothers' film instead of being a good Coen Brothers' film.
I mean, the movie's not as good as the other times the Coens have taken a break from serious drama, like Raising Arizona or O Brother, Where Art Thou? or The Big Lebowski. But it's not as bad as The Ladykillers or as frustrating as Burn After Reading. Where does it fall in the Coen's canon? Like most of their films, I think time will tell. I'm not going to place it in a numbered list, yet. Look, when The Big Lebowski followed Fargo, I thought it was a funny stoner film and that was about it. I don't know if anyone realized in 1998 it was a stone cold classic. So I'm not ready to write off Hail, Casear! as either a work of genius or a masterpiece or a failed attempt at greatness or hubris come to kick the brothers in the can. I can see why some folks really don't like it and I can see why it has failed to find an audience. But I really enjoyed it. It has that pacing that the Coens have made their own since No Country for Old Men. And it has that love of film history that they've shown since the beginning of their career.
If you're at all interested in finding out more about Eddie Mannix or Hollywood and the blacklist era check out the You Must Remember This podcast. Karina Longworth did a series on the history of MGM some of which dealt with the real Eddie Mannix and she's currently doing a series on the blacklist era. So, yeah. Check that out. The podcast is easy to find in iTunes or your favourite podcast wrangling software and she has a great website. Just go to Google and let your fingers do the walking.