by Danny Stout
Joel and Ethan Coen, the critically lauded and chided filmmakers known for their eclectic blend of serious drama and brainy comedy, notably the award-winning, The Big Lebowski,No Country for Old Men, Fargo, and Burn After Reading, deliver another gem of movie-viewing bliss and complexity with Hail Caesar!
The Coens take us behind stage of the 1940’s golden era film industry with protagonist movie executive the “fixer” Eddie Mannix, an actual character played by Josh Brolin, that frenetically solves problems, pulls strings, keeps scandal out of the press, and deals with an aggressively demanding boss calling him all day. He loves the pronto pace of each day interrupted only for regular visits to the Catholic confessional where he discloses, despite more serious picadillos, that he “smoked another cigarette,” against his vow to quit.
As a powerful film mogul, his ultimate project is Hail Caesar, what he considers the greatest depiction of Jesus on the silver screen. The gravity of greatness is so strong that it pulls him into a conference room with religious leaders given an advance copy of the script. One of the more humorous scenes, they argue about the nature of God while Mannix’s face feigns bewilderment, “Oh really?” he asks befuddled. But, caught up in their role in making “a picture,” they agree the movie’s portrayal of Jesus is fine. This meeting, his regular confessions, and references to the “League of Decency,” a Catholic movie censor, underline how powerful religion had over Hollywood. The League of Decency advocated rules such as couples sleeping apart and no chest hair on Tarzan.
Then, Maxim deals with the kidnapping of Hail Caesar’s leading man, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a Roman general-type character. A group of Communist Hollywood movie writers, demand $100,000 for Whitlock’s release to compensate for their low par from a greedy capitalist film industry. No problem, as Maxim picks up the phone. “I need some petty cash,” he says to the accountant, and poof! another problem solved.
Just two more minor details and he can call it a day. A news reporter threatens to expose a scandal involving a director. That’s easy; he has even juicier aspersions to cast over the writer’s head. Check that one off the list. But, then there’s a dicier conundrum. Popular actress DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant, Mannix calls the lawyers. The baby will be put in foster care, and she can adopt it later without disclosing she’s the mother. Done. What a day!
Similar to Fargo and The Big Lebowski, the Coens throw a lot at us. Plot development is replete with abundant twists and turns that raise infinite social and psychological dilemmas. In a Coen Brothers interview on the The Big Lebowski DVD, they don’t expect the audience to figure the nuances of the plot, they say. Complexity is a device to draw the reaction, “What the…?”
Such is the case with Hail Caesar. On the one hand, it seems to celebrate the passing of a restrictive era of film. On the other, the synchronised swimming and dancing scenes are magically evocative of everything wonderful about movies of that age. Yet, one gets the feeling that great old movies are the exception rather than the rule. How could they not be given the constraints on the industry at that time.
The filmmakers give us plenty of fodder and say, “Take it from here.” You can choose one thing and simplify the story, or take days trying to figure the whole thing out, and that’s OK too. According to Manohla Dargis of The New York Times “it has more going on than there might seem, including in its wrangling over God and ideology, art and entertainment.”
Nevertheless, at a general level, most will leave the theater entertained, but mulling over the hierarchy of power in the film industry, and censorship by religious groups, directly then, and indirectly now.
Against other Coen Brothers work, it Hail Caesar probably falls somewhere in the middle. It doesn’t evoke the imagination and creativity of the big pictures, Fargo and The Big Lebowski, but the concept and writing exceed that of The Ladykillers and Inside Llewyn Davis. While not their greatest film, it rises to their standard of healthy confusion, and unexpected scenes of grand entertainment.