Hail, Caesar!, the Coen Brothers’ latest movie, is a cheerful comedy about a busy week in 1951 at the fictitious Hollywood studio, Capitol Pictures, where their Barton Fink took place in 1941.
That 1991 film told the story of Fink, a Clifford Odets-like Communist playwright (played by John Turturro) who becomes the toast of Manhattan’s cafe society during the New Deal for his leftist dramas about The People. But Fink then accepts a lucrative offer to write for Hollywood. There he discovers that writers have no power in the movie business (unlike the New York stage, where playwrights have the contractual right to fire directors), and gets assigned to write a Wallace Beery wrestling pic for all eternity.
Hail, Caesar! is set in Hollywood during the McCarthy Era a decade later.
We’ve seen this period portrayed a million times from the point of view of the subpoenaed screenwriters (e.g., Redford and Streisand in The Way We Were), but the Coen Brothers show us the Red Scare from the anti-Communist side’s point of view.
Ten years after Barton Fink, the screenwriters are still affluent Communists. A Malibu cell of Stalinist scribes has so far restricted itself to slipping pro-Soviet metaphors into detective stories and musicals, which have gone largely unnoticed by anybody (except by other leftist writers and the most paranoid rightists) watching the exuberantly pro-American studio output.
But now, the Malibu Marxism Study Group has moved on to direct action, kidnapping a Clark Gable-like star (George Clooney) from the set of a Bible picture (Hail, Caesar!) to hold him for ransom, while Herr Professor Herbert Marcuse of the Frankfurt School lectures him on the dialectic. Clooney’s character is dim enough and self-absorbed enough to like what he hears about Marxism. Fortunately, two anti-Communist patriots, a young cowboy star and the studio’s conservative Catholic fixer (Josh Brolin), team up to foil the Commies, although not before the Malibu Marxists gay leader makes a theatrical escape to Moscow.
This is the Coen’s Catholic flick to go along with their Jewish movie, A Serious Man, and their various Protestant sect movies, such as O Brother, Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit.
Hail, Caesar! wasn’t rushed out in time for 2015 Oscar qualifying. Maybe it was delayed, or maybe the Coens realized it wasn’t quite up to Oscar quality. It doesn’t exhibit the extreme lucidity the Coens achieved in recent films, although it definitely doesn’t suffer either from the anhedonia of Inside Llewyn Davis.
But by the usual standards of February releases, it’s very good. It looks nice. The list of stars is impressive although borderline unwieldy in length: Clooney, Scarlett Johansson as a mermaid movie star in the mode of Esther Williams, Channing Tatum (Gene Kellyish — it’s fun to make unfair insinuations about Kelly because he was such an egomaniac), Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix (a real life MGM studio official, whose job was to persuade the heavily Irish cops and the Catholic Church to not make public fusses over the various scandals the stars got themselves into), Ralph Fiennes as a sort of director George Cukor, Jonah Hill as a notary public who makes a living out of his unquestionable legal personhood, and Tilda Swinton as identical twins who are highly competitive gossip columnists.
The one newcomer, Alden Ehrenreich, steals the show as a laconic rodeo star trying to learn how to talk to rich people rather than horses.
After Frances McDormand gets done editing the cowboy kid’s seemingly flailing attempt at drawing room drama, it’s suddenly clear he’s going to be a big star in the James Dean – Elvis Presley mode that nobody in 1951 could yet anticipate.
Throughout Hail, Caesar!, the mood is sunny and there is always something happening.
On the other hand, the jokes aren’t quite as funny as the Coen Brothers at their best, nor does the plot appear to have quite the superb fit and finish of their top half dozen movies. The period details are fun, but lots of other filmmakers have affectionately parodied old time Hollywood.
Five movies within a movie are seen in Hail, Caesar! But the overtly disparate ingredients make the overarching movie more like sketch comedy, which many people can do pretty well. At peak form, the Coens, in contrast, can extract more from a single premise (What if James M. Cain wrote true crime stories for 1940s men’s magazines read in small town barbershops? What if our dope-smoking burnout buddy tried to solve a confusing Raymond Chandler detective case?) than just about anybody.
Granted, The Big Lebowski is stuffed with elements that didn’t strike viewers as having much connection when it came out in the theaters, but famously started to all make some kind of weird sense when viewed for the third time on cable at 3am. So, I may be premature in assuming that the movies-within-the-movies are just random in Hail, Caesar! Maybe 3 years from now we’ll all be talking about how everybody thought Hail, Caesar! was just a lightweight goof when it came out and nobody at the time grasped its transcendent whateverness.
Or maybe not.
All in all, Hail, Caesar! requires less mental effort on the part of audiences than did, say, A Serious Man, which has its advantages and disadvantages. Hail, Caesar! is the Coen Brothers movie for people who sort of like Coen Brothers movies.