Hail Caesar, the newest film of the Coen brothers is not Fargo or No Country for Old Men or one of the brothers’ heavier films, and that seems to be what critics object to. That and the fact that the film seems episodic, skittering off in all directions instead of taking a direct route from exposition to denouement with no side trips. The fact is, of course, that those side trips are what give the movie its charm, and as for the lack of high seriousness, well that’s just complaining that the film is not what you may have wanted it to be, but is instead what the Coens wanted it to be. And that is an homage to the golden age of Hollywood: the film parodies some of the clichés of the film industry in its heyday just before the competition of television changed the industry—but there is appreciation in the parody, and a real fondness for the glitz and glamor of Hollywood even at its most insubstantial.
The story follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). a Hollywood “fixer” and apparently head of production for the mythical Capitol Studios, through one very long, problem-filled day (and night), in which he needs to find and ransom the kidnapped star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), whose absence is costing the studio a bundle by delaying the completion of a sword-and-sandal biblical epic (with a cast of thousands) called “Hail Caesar: A Tale of the Christ.” Along the way he has a number of other metaphorical fires to put out, involving fixing it so that an unmarried star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) can adopt her own baby, and finessing prima donna director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), whose prestigious drawing room comedy is threatened by the new lead that the studio has foisted upon him—a singing cowboy star named Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), who has never actually had to talk much on camera. On top of all this, Eddie has to navigate rival identical twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton, channeling Hedda Hopper), both trying to get exclusive stories and threatening to reveal a scandal involving Baird Whitlock and his first film. All in a day’s work for Mannix, who—harboring a great deal of stress and a good deal of guilt over the things he has to do to keep the studio afloat—with devout if wildly excessive zeal, is seen confessing to his priest at the beginning of the day and then at the end. “Bless me father for I have sinned,” he says in his second confession. “It’s 27 hours since my last confession.” The weary priest sighs and tells him that he comes just a little bit too often.
The events take place in 1951, and though much of what you read about Hail Caesar calls it a spoof of Hollywood in the Fifties, in fact the kinds of movies it parodies are mainly those that were popular in the late Forties and very early Fifties: Roy Rogers, for instance, made some 23 singing-cowboy B-westerns (like those that make this film’s Hobie Doyle a star) between 1948 and 1951—after that it was television for him. Esther Williams, the original of Johansson’s singing mermaid DeeAnna Moran, made her biggest movies, like 1949’s Neptune’s Daughter, at the same time, and her Busby Berkeley choreographed Million Dollar Mermaid—almost certainly the inspiration for Hail Caesar’s lushly choreographed film-within-the-film water ballet (choreographed by Mesha Kussman, founder and director of the synchronized swimming company Aqualillies) was released in 1952. The Oscar for Best Picture for 1951 went to Gene Kelly’s tour de force An American in Paris, and there is a clear nod to that in Hail Caesar’s most memorable meta-filmic moment, when we’re brought onto the set of a musical starring singing/dancing sensation Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum). In a sendup of Gene Kelly classics Anchors Aweigh (1945) and On the Town (1949), Tatum and a whole troupe of dancing sailors do a large-scale production number (with some unmistakable homoerotic overtones) called “No Dames.” The number (this one choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, of Broadway’s “Newsies”) is set in a bar where Tatum and his fellow swabbies tap dance on the bar, the tables, and anywhere else with a flat surface. Tatum is showstopping as the singing, tap-dancing sensation (who knew?).
The centerpiece of the film, though, is of course the bloated biblical epic in which Clooney, cast as usual in a Coen brothers film as the dumb cluck, plays a Roman centurion who ultimately is converted to Christianity in a scene climaxing at the crucifixion itself. This sounds a lot like the plot of The Robe, the epic of 1953, which was the first film shot in the wide-screen format of Cinemascope. This film-within-the-film’s subtitle, “A Tale of the Christ,” is of course the subtitle of Ben-Hur, the culmination of the biblical epic genre in 1959. Clooney’s exaggerated facial expressions when he views the face of the Christ the audience never sees parody Charlton Heston’s in that film, and it is this association that has no doubt led viewers to think of the Coen Brothers’ film as a reflection of the later 50s. But in fact, one of the biggest films of 1951 was Quo Vadis, the film that sparked a revival of the sword-and-sand blockbuster that ran through the decade.
The reason that 1951 (and the late 1940s) is important to this film has to do with the heating up of the Cold War: in 1947, a group of Hollywood writers and directors (the “Hollywood Ten”) denounced the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) which was attempting to probe communist influence in Hollywood, and were jailed and blacklisted. After some years of inactivity, HUAC was reconvened in 1951, when it called one of Columbia’s biggest stars, Larry Parks—who had played singing and dancing star Al Jolson (perhaps suggesting Tatum’s character?) in 1946 and 1949—to testify and ultimately to have blacklisted.
1951 is also the year of America’s first successful test of the hydrogen bomb. This is important in the film because Mannix is being courted by a representative of the Lockheed aircraft corporation, who, the Lockheed man boasts, are the one who delivered the H-bomb. Lockheed wants Mannix to come and work for them, to become their fixer, and their rep spends much of his time in his brief meetings with Mannix ridiculing the film industry as meaningless and trivial: he makes it clear that he is offering Mannix a better salary and better hours, and in a company where he’ll be doing something that really matters.
At the same time, Mannix finds that it is in fact a group of Hollywood-ten style communists (mainly screenwriters) who have kidnapped the hapless Whitlock and want to ransom him for $100,000. They argue that the studios, controlling the means of production, exploit the workers, like the writers (i.e., themselves) who create the wealth. Therefore the $100,000 ransom is justified, since it is simply a way of distributing the wealth more fairly. The impressionable and gullible—and dumb as a rock—Whitlock is rather easily persuaded to sympathize with his fairly lax captors. There’s a bit of irony here for film buffs, since the actual star of 1951’s Quo Vadis was in fact Robert Taylor, who in 1947 avowed his hatred of communism before HUAC and named names of suspected communists in Hollywood.
Thus Mannix, and the viewer, find themselves caught between two extremes, both of which regard what he does as frivolous, contributing nothing worthwhile to society. In his second confession of the day, he complains to his priest “It’s so hard. I don’t know if I can keep doing it. But it seems right.” What he knows is that what he is doing is of value. The movies, the dream-factory, do contribute to American society, in a manner that for lack of a better word may be described as “spiritual” in the broadest sense. Whitlock’s final speech at the foot of the cross, which enthralls everyone on the set (until he forgets the word “faith” in the middle of it), is one that could be applied as easily to the movies as to a religious experience, and it seems fairly certain that the Coens want us to hear it that way. Movies are uplifting, they bring us joy and hope and delight and all of that is worthwhile. As Mannix says, “It seems right.”
Now you may not care to consider the film that deeply. I only present thee things as an argument against those who have criticized the Coens’ movie itself as light and trivial. You can simply view it to enjoy the collection of delightful moments that Hail Caesar presents: Brolin is sympathetic and believable as the long suffering Mannix. Clooney is appropriately entertaining as the fool. Tatum is absolutely incredible as the singing sailor, and Fiennes is a riot as the frustrated auteur Lawrence Laurentz. Scarlett Johansson plays against type as a mouthy, brash starlet who calls her tight-fitting mermaid costume her “fish ass.” She actually can act! Who knew? But stealing the show as the singing cowboy, despite all the star power around him, is the charming and talented but little-known Alden Ehrenreich (who was in Blue Jasmine and Beautiful Creatures). Your eyes can’t leave him when he is on the screen, and the scene where he impresses his Carmen Miranda-like date by doing lariat tricks with a string of spaghetti is hilarious. Three Tennysons for this one.