Tuesday, February 09, 2016
HAIL, CAESAR! (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, 2016)
As Head of Physical Production at Capitol Pictures Studio, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is an overworked executive who wonders if his efforts are worth all of the trouble. In HAIL, CAESAR! he’s not just overseeing the filmmaking on the backlot but primarily attending to the professional and private matters of Capitol’s contracted performers and directors. He’s more likely to be breaking up a starlet’s illicit photo shoot in the wee hours and managing images as he is to be behind a desk poring over spreadsheets.
HAIL, CAESAR! tracks an eventful, although not altogether atypical, day-plus for Mannix. Baird Whitlock, (George Clooney), the star of a Biblical epic, goes missing and is being held for ransom. Bathing beauty DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is in need of a husband to legitimize the pregnancy that isn’t yet showing or known by the gossip columnists. Singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) gets plugged into a period drama that isn’t particularly suited to his talent for acrobatic horsemanship, thus testing the patience of the film’s director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). Amid this turmoil Mannix also has to fend off twin tabloid reporters Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) and slip out for a meeting with a Lockheed recruiter who promises him an easy and lucrative job.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s arch and affectionate send-up of early 1950s Hollywood provides plenty of surface pleasures for lovers of film history. Their gorgeous recreation of an aquatic musical scene analogous to one featuring Esther Williams evokes Technicolor movie magic in part through geometric design. A Gene Kelly-like routine with Channing Tatum leading a group of pent-up sailors in a song and dance number in a bar stands out as the sort of funny and joyous human spectacle that cinema excels at capturing. The latest and greatest computer-generated effects can be thrilling, but so too can men hoofing atop tables as tablecloths are pulled out from under them.
Although the Coens demonstrate fondness for classic Hollywood, they remind regularly of the artifice it is founded on. Stories about stars are planted with the press to match how the company wishes its employees to be perceived by the public. The studio bosses arrange dates between its actors and actresses solely for publicity and cover up legal matters as boosters and protection of the bottom line. The tops of sets and crews can be visible, sometimes from a distance, during these tremendous scenes of filmed entertainment. Dailies and rough cuts reveal the manipulation that goes into building an illusion of the projected dream world. As one of the Thackers says, people want to believe in something, not the facts, and the movies sell a kind of perfection. The Coens strive to undercut it while acknowledging the strange beauty all this fakery can produce. In a dark night of the soul moment for Mannix, he visits the Jesus film’s set of Golgotha. There’s nothing realistic about the crucifixes against the muted backdrop, yet the setting emphasizes a real yearning for spiritual enlightenment.
With its opening shot of Christ on the cross and first scene of Mannix in a confessional, there’s no mistaking that HAIL, CAESAR! is about the search for existential purpose and how it gets mixed up with art, commerce, and religion. Mannix’s turmoil comes from thinking that what he’s made his life’s work is frivolous and difficult. He isn’t wrong, yet Mannix isn’t quite ready to trade it in for something that won’t demand much from him while yielding greater rewards. How Mannix spends his days may be inconsequential in the grand scheme, yet isn’t he fulfilling a higher calling if going about his job with enthusiasm in spite of the struggles? Plus, there is a time and place for the minor. A lasso fashioned out of a string of spaghetti is effectively useless, yet there’s something to be said for the fleeting delight in seeing one in action.