Courtesy of The New York Times

February 18, 2016

The Coens Take Hollywood: Hail, Caesar!

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The abundance of non-sequiturs and throwaway scenes in Hail, Caesar! is not unusual as these are the trademark characteristics of the Coen brothers’ work. As A.O. Scott put it, a Coen brothers movie is “a brilliant magpie’s nest of surrealism, period detail and pop-culture scholarship.” While this is true, you must understand before going to Hail, Caesar! that you are basically paying to watch the Coens lovingly recreate all the different styles of Hollywood product from the 1950s — westerns, noirs, swimsuit musicals and melodramas. Their new film is merely a vehicle for them to outright mimic all the films they have paid homage to previously — the Busby Berkeley dance number from The Big Lebowski, the non-self conscious roving landscapes of True Grit, the musical numbers from O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis. It is a beautifully crafted pastiche without multi-faceted characters, a whimsical whim which is enjoyed, digested and forgotten.

The Coens like to make three distinct varieties of movies — hardboiled thrillers, goofy screwball comedies and mixtures of the two. If Blood Simple or No Country fall to the thriller end of the spectrum then Burn After Reading or Oh, Brother fall to the screwball end. They have made masterpieces in all three categories — both Fargo and A Serious Man were winning combinations of the two. The Coen brothers are masters of deft plotting and subtle tension, as well as absurdism and rat-a-tat joke-telling. Hail, Caesar! is clearly intended to be a silly film, but it isn’t as off-the-wall as the trailer would lead you to expect. It tickles you, yes, but doesn’t make you laugh uncontrollably. For a better, dare I say funnier, Hollywood satire with more teeth in its bite, try David Cronenberg’s underlooked Maps to the Stars from last year.

Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a studio fixer straight out of the Coen playbook. He’s the man on-the-go who mops up messes where the stars and talent are concerned. The dame from the latest picture is having an affair? Send over Mannix and he’ll sweep it all under the rug, send her home with a pat on the back and reassure her that the work she’s doing churning out studio fare is valid and valuable. The professional deceiving takes its toll; he goes to confession every day. It is a subtle point of the movie that everyone who works for the studio system is merely kidding themselves along while putting up the shows that will give false impressions to many, but the Coens don’t embellish on it much.

Trouble strikes when Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), star of the studio’s biggest production of the year, a Roman swords-and-sandals epic called Hail, Caesar is kidnapped. A ransom note appears and Mannix sets to work wrangling Whitlock back. This plotline is interrupted time and time again for the Coens’ excursions into the ’50s studio system milieu. Brolin visits an editor based on Margaret Booth, played by Frances McDormand, who hysterically gets her kerchief stuck in a spooling film reel. Alden Ehrenreich plays a western actor modeled after Kirby Grant, who can’t for the life of him act melodramatically, much to the chagrin of British director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). Tilda Swinton plays two identical twin muckrakers hunting for a scandal in Mannix’s company. Even Alison Pill shows up as Mannix’s ’50s-branded servile wife. The supporting cast is terrific and the reveal of the people behind Whitlock’s kidnaping is quite amusing. Once you find out who these people are, you might just sympathize with them. Suffice it to say that they are the most incessantly abused people in the movie business.

Those excursions take the center stage, and the cast comes to support them. All the actors have essentially bit parts, and the film shuffles from Brolin to Clooney to Fiennes to Scarlett  Johansson. Jonah Hill turns up in one scene and is gone. All of this is amusing and pleasant, but much shallower than the fare we are used to from the Coens. Where is the sense of foreboding malice and laughable conspiracy that thwarts Barton Fink’s attempt to write his first screenplay? That throwaway film from the Coens had much grander things on its mind — mainly the frustrating, masochistic nature of the creative process — than this one does. If asked what the themes behind Hail, Caesar! were, I believe I would draw a blank. I think it functions solely as an expression of one of the Coen’s particular fancies. I’m willing to get on board for anything that comes from their minds, but I had hoped for something more to chew on.

Mark DiStefano is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]