Saturday, February 20, 2016

Render Unto Caesar

Josh Brolin in Hail, Caesar!

I don't remember the last time I had such a keen anticipation for a movie like the one  I had for the Coen brothers' latest film, Hail, Caesar! (2016). The Coens have been on a roll, after all, and the two trailers for the film were crackling with comic invention. Or, at the very least, the promise of comic invention. I probably should have taken notice of its release date. Superbowl weekend is traditionally an occasion when movie studios like to dump projects in which they find their faith is lagging. I should also have considered my own rocky relationship with the Coens' comedies. I mostly don't like them much. All of this should have set off alarm bells. And yet I still found myself getting carried along by hype.

Alden Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes in Hail, Caesar!

The plot of Hail, Caesar! follows a couple of days in the life of Eddie Mannix, an executive with Capitol Pictures sometime in mid-20th Century Hollywood. Mannix has problems. He has had to promote cowboy star Hobie Doyle to an A-picture by prestige director Laurence Laurentz. The picture is a Noel Coward-ish upscale film requiring sophistication and urbanity, neither of which Hobie possesses. He's a singing cowboy who is rarely called upon to actually act. More vexing is DeAnna Moran, popular star of watery musicals, who is unmarried and pregnant. She's unwilling to marry the father of her child (who turns out to be already-married anyway). She's holding out for a solution that will give her some kind of stability. But the major crisis is the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock, the star of the studio's latest Biblical epic, "Hail, Caesar! (A Tale of the Christ)". The kidnappers, a group calling themselves "The Future," are asking for $100,000. Meanwhile, they're attempting to indoctrinate Whitlock into Communist politics. The only project that seems completely untroubled is the musical starring Burt Gurney as a dancing sailor. Mannix spends a lot of time in confession given the sins to which he's driven by his job. The one that troubles him the most is his failure to quit smoking and the lies he tells his wife about it. Eddie has been offered a less frantic, more stable job with Lockheed. He's sorely tempted to take it...

George Clooney in Hail, Caesar!

My initial, knee-jerk reaction to Hail, Caesar! is that it fails to deliver the antic comedy it promises. It's three major storylines don't really connect to one another except in the most cursory fashion (the storyline with Scarlett Johansson's DeAnna Mason doesn't connect with the others at all). I thought most of the best gags were in the trailers. The best scene in the film, Hobie Doyle being coached on line delivery by Laurence Laurentz, is almost the entirety of the film's second trailer. I'm suspicious of my initial reaction, though. Certainly, this is lovingly made, with a deep knowledge of Hollywood, both in legend and in fact. The film's forgeries of classic films is pointed, affectionate, and occasionally savage. There are some profound pleasures on hand here: Alden Ehrenreich's performance as Hobie, for instance, is a star-maker, while the "No Dames" dance number featuring Channing Tatum in a cute sailor outfit is a joy both as dance and for its completely gormless homoeroticism. George Clooney's clueless Baird Whitlock is funny, too, as is the white elephant production in which he stars, but Clooney is the Coen's go-to guy for pompous idiots, so the bloom is off the lily. There are a lot of small things that add up, from Hobie using a string of spaghetti as a lariat to the infighting among the Communists that are pleasurable in and of themselves. But the film squanders some of its resources, too. I'm not even sure what to make of the glorified cameos by Jonah Hill, Tilda Swinton, and Frances McDormand. Swinton, in particular, seems to want for a more substantial part as twin gossip columnists, while the scene with McDormand could be cut from the film with no noticeable effect.

Scarlett Johansson in Hail, Caesar!

The thing that nags at me about Hail, Caesar!, the thing that makes me question the relative merits of its surface antics, is its relationship with religion. Sometimes this is overt--the scene where Mannix consults a quartet of religious leaders to make sure that Hail, Caesar isn't going to offend anyone takes gentle pot-shots at the ecumenical ideal of America. That the Orthodox patriarch starts to criticize the "realism" of one of the action scenes is funny. Everyone is a critic. But the film is more interested in religion than this particular lampoon. Mannix's pathological need to confess his sins is less interested in making a joke at the rituals of Catholicism than it is an inquiry into Eddie's character. He goes directly from the confessional to the site of a nascent scandal in the first scene in the movie, immediately providing the film with a theme of the sacred and the profane coexisting. This is examined in more baroque fashion in the scenes we see of Hail, Caesar! itself, which is so tacky as to be irreligious in spite of its veneer of piety. And then, there's the Lockheed man.

The Devil has been a frequent companion to the Coens' movies. He's the biker from hell in Raising Arizona, he's affable Charlie Meadows in Barton Fink, he's the man with the dogs in O Brother Where Art Thou, he's Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (or maybe he isn't). In Hail, Caesar!, he's the military industrial complex. He's sent to tempt Eddie Mannix with the prospect of working for the company that built the H-Bomb. Seen in this light, Eddie's various tasks become tests of his virtue, and his life as a film executive is transformed into an actual vocation rather than just as a job. This is deeply ironic, because there was a real Eddie Mannix, Hollywood fixer, and in a lot of ways, Eddie Mannix, real and fictional, was/is himself The Devil. The film's ideation of movie studios as virtuous agents in the fight against Communism is as much of a sham as Eddie's picture postcard family. All of which makes me distrust my initial knee-jerk reaction. Oh, don't get me wrong. I think the film is a mess. But there's something going on here beneath the surface. The devil is in the details.

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