Movie Review: Hail, Caesar! (2016)
“Hail, Caesar!” is lesser Coen Bros. but I liked it. It has a bigger heart than a lot of their comedies (cf., “Burn After Reading,” “Barton Fink”) and finds redeeming qualities in even that most pointless of occupations: Hollywood star. It’s really the Coens’ smudged love letter to Hollywood. It doesn’t disparage the place, doesn’t idealize it, just presents it with all of its ordinary, quotidian, comic imperfections.
Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a no-nonsense fixer for 1950s-era Capitol Studios, whose big star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped while shooting the Biblical epic, “Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ,” in which he plays a Roman tribune won over by the son of God. (“Squint against the grandeur!” his director shouts at him during the conversion scene.) Baird is then drugged by an extra (Wayne Knight of “Seinfeld”), and taken to a Malibu pad overlooking the ocean, which is occupied by a dozen or so communist writers, who, without much effort, and despite constant disagreement amongst themselves, indoctrinate the star. He becomes a communist. Which is totally unbelievable in the blacklist era—that he wouldn’t know communism, and he wouldn’t know enough to stay away from it—but the movie seems a kind of ’50s Hollywood version of ’50s Hollywood. It mimics the tropes of the genres it reproduces: drawing-room romance; singing cowboy picture; Esther Williams extravaganza; Biblical epic.
The future is calling
At one point, for example, singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), an aw-shucks mensch, is tailing the star of homoerotic musicals, Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), and in classic ’50s fashion we see the neon lights of the city gliding by over his car windshield. Later, Gurney defects to the U.S.S.R. The old writers row him out to sea, where a Soviet sub emerges. Per the period, it looks like it was filmed in a giant bathtub.
What makes this almost poignant is the name the writers use in their ransom demand: the Future. We see Mannix trying to fend off one of the movie’s twin gossip columnists, both played by Tilda Swinton, when an assistant tracks him down:
Assistant: I know this sounds screwy, but someone’s calling from the future?
Mannix: Good lord!
All of those genres? They don’t last the decade. Neither does the studio system, while communism itself will wind up on the ash heap of history. The future is always calling here.
Is that why the Coens are nicer to these characters? Because they recognize their short shelf life? Mannix, for all his toughness, is a man who confesses sins that are hardly sins, even as he spends his days trying to cover up scandals that are hardly scandals: Baird’s drinking; swim star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) having a child out of wedlock; a starlet making “French postcards.” It’s all quaint in the era of Kim Kardashian breaking the Internet.
All the stars are decent, really. Hobie is a singing cowboy, sure, but he’s not a fake; he can sing, ride, lasso. He’s also humble. Baird is a ham but harmless. He can also inspire with his acting—if he can just remember the words. Hobie’s arranged studio date, Carlotta Valdez (Vernoice Osorio), is sweet, while director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) has almost infinite patience when forced to star the wrong actor (Hobie) in his sophisticated, drawing-room romance. Their scene together, the “Would that it ’twere so simple” scene, already feels like a classic.
The worst person in the movie is probably the twin gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker, but they’re so easily sidetracked, and Swinton so good, that it’s all forgiven. Just the way Swinton says “Eddie.” Just that.
HUAC’s fears realized
It is startling that the Coens could make a light-hearted comedy set during the dark days of the blacklist, in which all of HUAC’s worst fears (or hopes) are realized:
- There’s a communist cell in Hollywood.
- It’s smuggling red propaganda into movies
- A Hollywood star is a Soviet spy, who gives the U.S. a goodly portion of homoerotic song and dance as if to undermine American masculinity.
But it’s a Coen movie: all the machinations amount to not much. One of my favorite lines, in fact, comes from a communist writer bragging about his propagandizing. He talks up a fairly anodyne Hollywood scene, then says with self-satisfaction, “Well, I like to think we changed a few minds.”
That might've been my biggest laugh of the night.