The camera pans up to the sky, directly into the sun. The light engulfs the image, filling the screen with all white, which quickly transitions to black as the credits start to roll. As the lights come up, a group of middle-aged filmgoers sitting in front of me start laughing, loudly. Their laughter is tinged with a mix of discomfort, bewilderment and genuine enjoyment, as if they don’t know what to make of what they just saw but still liked it. This was how my second viewing of the Coen brothers newest film, “Hail, Caesar!,” ended. The laughter from the group in front of me is echoed throughout the theater as everyone files out, chuckles sprinkled throughout the dimly lit room. I love the state of delirious befuddlement that Joel and Ethan Coen’s films leave me, and others, in, and for this alone, their newest comedy is reason to celebrate.
The film follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood “fixer” for the fictional studio, Capitol Pictures. Mannix’s job is to handle the various crises that arise everyday for the studio; whether it’s dealing with potential PR problems caused by a movie star’s scandalous personal life, keeping the production of the latest religious epic on schedule, or scrounging up $10,000 to pay the ransom of the star of said religious epic, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who’s been kidnapped by Communists. Along the way there are various subplots involving the aforementioned movie stars, the standout involving up-and-comer Hobe Doyle, played by the incredible Alden Ehrenreich, who, to use that old cliché, steals the show.
At first, the film feels like a satire of Hollywood, taking it to task for it’s pretentions and over-inflated image of itself, a kind of companion piece to the brothers’ bitter, cynical take on Tinsletown in their earlier film “Barton Fink.” Such is the case with Laurence Lorentz (Ralph Fiennes), a pompous, intellectual who demands that he be allowed to make “real dramas.” Fiennes, like most of the rest of the cast, is delightful in his brief time on screen and his “Would that it were so simple” back-and-forth with Ehrenreich is sublime. But by brief, I mean brief. One sort-of complaint that I have with the film is that it barely utilizes most of the absolutely marvelous performers that are peppered throughout. But the Coen’s are going for scope here, trying to give you a comprehensive, not exhaustive, portrait of Classic Hollywood. So it is width, not depth, that’s important for this film. And these glorified cameos also add up to an overall silliness in the film’s tone that can feel like parody or the Coen’s cynically critiquing Old Hollywood. Basically, “Barton Fink” as a comedy instead of an existential drama.
But that isn’t quite the whole truth. Yes, there are some jokes here and there that aren’t kind to Hollywood’s corrupt buying off of cops and the way that Mannix and the studios “manage” the images of their stars does feel a bit slimy (particularly the managing of female stars. Good ol’ fashioned sexism is also in the crosshairs). But the Coens love and have internalized Classic Hollywood films their entire lives. Just look at several of the films scenes that are done in the style of Old Hollywood set pieces: the climactic Western action scene that serves as Hobe Doyle’s introduction, the elaborate and visually opulent aquatic musical extravaganza starring Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum’s dance sequence that feels like a lost number from “On The Town.” The jabs at Hollywood, along with these very earnest indulgences in genres and films that the Coens have a genuine affection for, makes it seem like their trying to have their cake and eat it too. But guess what? They get away with it.
Ultimately though, the film seems to be rather kind to the business of motion pictures, while still not blind to the problems that plague it. As Mannix addresses a group of religious leaders he’s consulting about the respectfulness of a new film’s depiction of Jesus, he correctly notes that, for many, “pictures are people’s point of reference.” In this sense, films are a kind of sacred text for the modern world, secular holy books if you will, used as a substitute for, or alternative to, the disillusioning effects of the various ideologies of the world. Whether it’s the indifference of the world religions (Mannix faces some of that first hand in confession with a priest), or the failures of economic and political systems (Communism vs. Capitalism, in this case). There’s a scene later in the film that essentially says: ”Sure, movies may be a bit frivolous. Cultural schlock even. But at least they don’t blow anyone up.” This seems to be the point of the film, if there is one at all.
I say this because, as I noted earlier, the Coens have always left their audiences confused, scratching there heads, trying to sort out what it all meant, what they’re supposed to get out of this story (not unlike the various protagonists of their films). For filmmakers who seem to love Hollywood, their approach to narrative is a far cry from the simplistic moralizing of Hollywood (Classic or Modern), where the narrative flows in a logical stream of cause-and-effect, a definitive conclusion is reached and the capitol-P “Point” of the film is spoon-fed right to the audience. The Coens’ films can sometimes feel like they add up to nothing, that it all just happened, randomly and with no meaning or higher power behind it all. And this is very deliberate on there part, because the more sense you try to make of it, the more confusing it’s going to seem. It’s a lot like life in that sense. And at the end of it all life goes on.
Which brings me back to my laughing fellow theater patrons. Perhaps the biggest laugh from the audience came as those credits were rolling, as if the movie itself (and also life itself) was the biggest joke of all. It might be, or it might not. If it is, we might as well kick back and have a few laughs while George Clooney acts like a doofus dressed as a Roman general.