Hail, Caesar! focuses on the trials and tribulations of a day (and a bit) in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). Eddie is a well known Hollywood 'fixer' of any problems his studio (and its stars) may find themselves in, doing whatever he can to help them keep up appearances in the public eye. This is back when movie stars were typically wrangled up by one studio exclusively, a little different nowadays to how any actor can pretty much float around studios freely at their own convenience for the most part. When Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) goes missing from the set of Hail, Caesar!, Eddie receives a note demanding $100,000 dollars that's cryptically signed "from the future". Eddie intends to pay the ransom, while the 'stars' whose image he helps keep 'sparkling clean' keep him more busy than he'd probably like on such a bizarre day, but a fortuitous turn of events will lead Eddie to the solution of all his problems in Coen brothers style.
Probably the greatest drawback to Hail, Caesar! is that it's only really going to be fully accessible to people who are at least familiar with some of the movies and stars back in the 'golden age of Hollywood' and are also aware at how ubiquitous the increasing paranoia of the McCarthy led era of the 'red under the bed' ie communism was at the time. What I don't understand is why the Coen brothers would use the real name of Eddie Mannix, but then create pseudonym's for the other characters who are clearly inspired by other Hollywood stars of the day.
Maybe it's because the Coen brothers play it fairly fast and loose with the facts that it would be unfair to the real life inspirations to do so, though it's not terribly hard to figure out who is who. (George Clooney) Baird Whitlock is Victor Mature, (Scarlett Johansson) DeeAnna Moran is an amalgamation of Esther Williams and Barbara La Marr, (Channing Tatum) as Burt Gurney is Gene Kelly, (Alden Ehrenreich) as Hobie Doyle is Roy Rogers, (Veronica Osorio) as Carlotta Valdez is Carmen Miranda, (Tilda Swinton) is both Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, and (Ralph Fiennes) is probably fashioned after Noel Coward. That's not to say that they mirror these people exactly, but the inspiration taken from their lives is undoubtedly there in Hail, Caesar!
Hail, Caesar! has wonderful set designs and production values, but it also has a very flat momentum to it with very few ups and downs, even in spite of its flamboyant musical numbers and lavish sets. It always felt very locked in tonally, consistently mildly amusing is how I'd describe it. What's a roller coaster without any ups or downs? It's just a train just chugging along and that feels like the speed of Hail, Caesar!.
The supporting cast are all good, but brief. If you've seen the trailer then you've already seen most of their scenes, and that's not an exaggeration either. It's interesting about 'old Hollywood' to a degree, but there's very little suspense or intrigue given that it's a mystery at its core, albeit a comedic one. I mean, everything is laid out so plainly and matter-of-factly that it's hard to feel any sense of involvement or emotions to the characters or the story.
There's a very dry sense of humor as Mannix navigates the Hollywood system and tabloid reporters who would take great delight in tearing down a beloved actor or actress. They're basically the cinematic equivalent of the critic from Birdman, egotistical elitists who take pride in destroying the credibility of an actor, and perhaps deservedly so. Maybe there was even some self-serving nobility in what they were doing by shining a light on some of the dangerous hedonists that were running rampant in Hollywood with little to no consequences. Joseph Silverman (Jonah Hill) exemplifies the temerarious proclivities of the stars as he's essentially a fall-guy for the stars. If a star gets drunk and runs someone over then Joseph Silverman is your man.
That dry, and often theological humor recurs throughout Hail, Caesar!, although they play it straight. From Eddie Mannix holding a meeting with the leaders of various religious groups to make sure there's nothing of a theological nature in 'Hail, Caesar!' that might cause offense. Not unlike the focus groups and test groups that most movies are subjected to nowadays to smooth over any uncomfortable edges. Not realizing that the edges of a movie are what people remember the most. The ups and the downs of a movie (roller coaster) if you will, not the smooth and steady one speed approach (train) that's given to us by often unreliable audience approval ratings in the misplaced hope of risk avoidance. In their typical iconoclastic style, as Mannix is watching a rough cut of Hail, Caesar!, the movie is interrupted with various blank screens that say things 'insert scene here', stuff like that, and one screen comes up that says "Divine Presence to be shot", I got a little chuckle out of it, and again, it's all played totally straight.
When Baird Whitlock awakens, he finds his kidnappers to be most amiable, and they find him to be most malleable, in other words, he'll be a useful idiot to further their cause. In some ways he reminded me of the Seinfeld episode where Kramer gets tied up in communism, there's even a bit where he threatens to "name names" and 'the study group' all recoil and gasp. Baird doesn't seem to understand the precarious situation he's in. Baird has no real understanding of their dangerous political ideology and what it means, he's oblivious to the ramifications. Baird even talks openly about communism, gushing about a book called Capital "with a K". The leader of 'the study group' (Max Baker) John Howard Hermann who mirrors John Howard Lawson.
The paradox of their fundamentally defunct ideology eludes them however, as Paul Jarrico (member of the communist party) recounted. "There’s a Jarrico theory of guilt that will be found, someday, in textbooks of psychology, which is that most people who feel guilty, are. Yes, there was a feeling that here we were… being paid higher amounts of money for our work than most people got paid for their work, yet identifying ourselves with the oppressed and the poor." They talk a persuasive game to the impressionable Baird, but true communists wouldn't be asking for more money for themselves, however they fail to see, or recognize their own greedy hypocrisy. Instead they slyly insert communist content and propaganda into movies through manipulative storytelling, subtle dialogue, subliminal messages and a gradual process of osmosis, a collective reconditioning of a country's thought process. The Coen brothers are clearly having a bit of a joke with it all, but this was a very real thing back then, absurd as it sounds now.
The striking juxtaposition between the public morality and the private debauchery of the industry and how it facilitates it is as much an indictment of Hollywood as it is a love letter to the 'golden age of Hollywood'. Eddie Mannix, who has been wrestling with a very lucrative job offer from Lockheed, I think decides to stay on to uphold the quixotic morality of the day, to protect American's from the indecency of the industry. The real Eddie Mannix may have been a different story entirely, but that's the impression of him I got here. The Coen brothers continue to make niche movies, none of which have had a considerable mainstream success, although some have enjoyed a cult following (Fargo, The Big Lebowski), but I doubt that Hail, Caesar! will become one of them.
Written by - The Sentry - 09/05/2016