This is a movie about movies.
There is a certain level of playfulness that comes with a Coen Brothers picture. Even No Country For Old Men, the most dour, serious-minded of them, is laced with black comedy and even outright goofiness, as is the case with the haircut Javier Bardem sports as an otherwise terrifying killer. It’s also, by nature of the sets and lighting, in dialogue with noirs and westerns before it. Inside Llewyn Davis may not have that level of genre revisionism, but it is, in addition to its abundant humor, also stuffed to the brim with dramatic irony, foreshadowing and structural callbacks.
Playfulness is not as hidden in Hail, Caesar! as it is to varying extents in those and other films. It is a straight comedy, even bordering on the screwball of Intolerable Cruelty. Twin gossip columnists talk behind one another’s backs to the audience’s delight and are mistaken for one another by Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the film’s protagonist, who keeps scandals out of the press to maintain pristine star images. Names are butchered, lines cannot be delivered and knowing jokes wink at the audience.
Perhaps most playful, this is a movie about movies. And it doesn’t have the obscure, psychological filter of Barton Fink, the unanimous Palme d’Or winner about a screenwriter. Hail, Caesar!, set in 1951, takes the viewer through the sets of westerns, prestige biblical epics, fantasy pictures, dramas and musicals, all lovingly recreated by returning, longtime partners Roger Deakins and Mary Zophres as D.P. and costume designer, respectively, and the rest of the crew. The set of the eponymous film within the film is full of yellow, red and purple costumes and lavish table sets that recall Technicolor; Hail, Caesar! comes to a complete hall to indulge in a Channing Tatum-starring musical number; aerial shots treat us to Scarlett Johansson emerging from the water as a mermaid in a highly choreographed manner. The repeated genre-play in which the Coens have indulged, not to mention their remakes, betray their love of cinema and here, at last, it’s laid bare.
Of course, a pure love letter a la Hugo would simply not be the Coens. Mannix is contemplating a move to the aviation industry, where a 10-year contract would give him good pay and stock options that would make it possible to comfortably retire. More than that, his hours would normalize and he could spend more with time with his wife at dinner and his son’s little league games. But before he can make that decision, he has to locate Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of that Oscar-hopeful Biblical epic, who has just been captured by communists, all while squashing other scandals before they break with the aforementioned gossip columnists on his back.
As that plot description suggests, Hail, Caesar! shoots out in many different directions at once, and as drama it is not especially satisfying, with minor plotlines following secondary characters cropping up now and again and tied off neatly. While this particular element is more charming than distracting, Mannix’s family situation, his job change, his religious struggle and his bid to quit smoking all pile up, and the film is so busy balancing them and making sure they don’t disappear that it never ties them together. Each seems to resonate on its own, discrete symbolic revenue rather than as a group of interconnected moving parts essential to keeping the machine running. Like those smaller plotlines with the secondary characters, Mannix’s various struggles and even the kidnapping of Whitlock feel like placeholders.
And they are placeholders. This is less a film about characters and story than about reveling in the magic of movies. Accordingly, the claim that the Coens are misanthropes or hate their characters, bringing placing them into a world to torture them, has never felt less appropriate. Every character, from the communists to the doofus movie stars to the studio executives, is warm, endearing and even jolly.
It would not be accurate to say that the Coens are simply not interested in character relations and narrative, but certainly claims of misanthropy are simplistic and fail to capture the whole. For those still baffled or overwhelmed by all their collective filmography offers, character treatment is a visible, mostly consistent finding, but Hail, Caesar! spotlights another, arguably more definitive feature, and plays like a defining work for it. If you don’t know what the Coens are all about, it is this film’s text.
More important than the story and characters is the spectacle of the film, the loving nods to old Hollywood that embrace a time when everyone turned to movies and adores the studio system so openly, even while drawing attention to its constructed, capitalistic nature. It loves the movie star even as it acknowledges the star as a total construction, a discourse only aided by the presence of Clooney. To find a discourse about Hollywood this even-handed, one must look back to Far From Heaven and Mulholland Drive, and that’s great company indeed.