No matter what the Coen Brothers release, it’s always worth examining.
In a career that has lasted thirty years, the Coens have only made one truly abysmal film, The Ladykillers. But the rest of their filmography is a wonderful Pynchonesque combination of Americana trash with philosophical treasure. They find the most banal aspects of our society and use it as a diving board to examine how America’s conscience ended up distracted by things like bowling, cars, and hair gel.
Hail Caesar! begins its examination with the post-war studio system. Head of Capitol Pictures Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) drifts through his private world as he tries to solve one crisis after another. One of these crises, as outlined in the trailer, is the kidnapping of Capitol star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) by a group of communist screenwriters. There is also a potential sex scandal with DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) who is pregnant but can’t identify the father, a director named Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) who detests having western actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) forcibly cast in his comedy of manners, and job offers from Lockheed Martin that Mannix is finding increasingly attractive.
The old Hollywood setting immediately recalls Barton Fink, which also announces the Coen’s intentions. Fink was a film about how the world was ignoring the rise of Nazis by focusing on meaningless garbage. Caesar seems to be predicting the Cold War and how both sides tried to be so different but ended up consumed by their singular obsessions. With the U.S., there is an obsession with religious iconography. The titular production is a Ben-Hur-esque epic about a Roman soldier who meets Jesus of Nazareth. This production also leads to the funniest scene in the film, in which a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, and a rabbi all argue about the nature of God and whether or not the portrayal of Jesus could be offensive. One of the assembled men can only complain about how the chariot scene may be overdone.
With the communists, there is constant bickering with no real clear ideas. The screenwriters who kidnap Baird all seem to just want more of the money that the films they write have made at the box office. They sit around in their bungalow, endlessly debating their plans about bringing on the worker’s revolution. But this means that they cannot articulate anything meaningful. They’re so distracted that their kidnapping plot seems to be their biggest coup, but they barely even notice what’s happening. Whitlock is easily seduced by their conversation, but he’s presented as such a blank slate that he’s probably just happy someone is talking to him.
So what does this all mean?
I do think this is mean to be an extended metaphor for the Cold War and how both sides were ultimately having the same fight. But the Coens create a universe that has several layers of meaning. It all points back to that dichotomy, from the appearances of twins who both insult each other to the repetition of each new day for Mannix. People will be debating endlessly about what Frances McDormand’s editor character means, but that’s part of the fun. Has anyone actually agreed on what Barton Fink means?
Perhaps the most interesting character is the Hobie Doyle. He’s a person so fixed in his role that he is unable to really comprehend going beyond cowboy pictures. He’s not resentful of being cast in a new film. He is in fact quite friendly. He is just unable to properly understand what it means to play a new role. It underlines Mannix’s conflict about accepting a new job and Whitford’s position of not understanding the new role that has been thrust upon him. He’s essential to the film but, since he’s surrounded by a cast full of stars, people barely notice him.
Are there problems with Hail Caesar? Yes. The Coens include far too many subplots and characters that are good for nothing more than a single joke. Scarlett Johansson is featured prominently in the trailers but is only in two scenes of the film. Neither of those scenes even have a bearing on the main plot. Channing Tatum has a much greater impact on everyone else, but then he is also in a minimum number of scenes. There’s a lot of wasted potential on display and it’s jarring. I found myself wanting to know more about these characters, especially after I realized the kidnapping plot was one of many threads.
The Coens took a similar approach to cameo appearances in The Big Lebowski, which had David Thewlis, Ben Gazzarra, John Turturro, and Julianne Moore in a limited number of scenes. But each of their characters had the appropriate singular impact and never detracted from The Dude. He had to meet them to try to make sense of the conspiracy around them. Hail Caesar never made that connection for me. It felt more like a collection of vignettes that would have been more amusing if they were not part of a larger whole.
But on the other hand, maybe the point is that people at the time were not stopping to look at the bigger picture of the world around them. The communists came across as dumb and greedy, as did all of the people in the studio who were incapable of switching any aspect of their lives. And Hail Caesar has more ideas than the last five films I’ve seen. The Coens remain some of the finest working American filmmakers. I wish more people emulate their approach, but I also know not a lot of people could.