The collage of manic behavior that drives the Hollywood machine is one of the often explored topics, where the darker, ironical side of stardom is brought to the fore. On the outset, (especially judging from the trailers) Coen brothers’ latest metaphysical dramedy “Hail, Caesar!” (2016) looks like one. But their idiosyncratic approach in construing a farce set around Golden Age Hollywood (1950s) is more profoundly layered than being a minor creative exercise. It is true that the film lacks the fiery satirical edge we found in the brothers’ previous Hollywood farce “Barton Fink” (1991), but I don’t think of “Hail, Caesar!” as a blithesome or weightless effort of Coens’ like “Intolerable Cruelty” or “The Lady Killers”. It’s episodic, looser narrative threads does threaten at times to collapse our interest, but a little rumination on the film’s Meta layers would makes us marvel at its profundity & subtlety.
Set in the glamorous as well as grimy alleys of post war Hollywood studios, the film’s central character is Capitol Picture’ Studio Chief Eddie Mannix (in “Barton Fink”, it was Capitol Pictures which hired the central character to write script for wrestling flick – that film was set in the era of depression). Mannix’s (Josh Brolin) character has few similarities to real life Hollywood fixer EJ Mannix (worked at MGM). The narrative follows Mannix for a day and a half, where he resolves a series of crises, both large and small ones. The studio’s epic Ben-Hur like production (also named “Hail, Caesar) starring biggest star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is about to wrap up within next two days, but unfortunately Whitlock is kidnapped. Mannix thinks the movie star is on a bender or spending time with a script gal, until he gets a ransom note demanding $100,000.
The studio’s star of aquatic musicals DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) has gotten herself pregnant and now she can’t fit into the mermaid suit. But, most importantly Mannix has got to fake a marriage or an adoption to uphold the star’s image (“Can a woman adopt her own baby?” Mannix asks a studio layer while finding a solution for the problem). Mr. Schenk from New York Head Office wants to cast studio’s good-looking, singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) as the central character in a serious drama, directed by prized director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). Hobie obviously struggles in reciting emotional dialogues as in his previous flicks all he had to say was “Whitey!” & “Whoa”. Mannix also has to deal with troubling twin gossip journalists (Tilda Swinton), while Whitlock founds out that he has been kidnapped by the nest of disgruntled communist script writers. And thus Mannix’s cornucopia of crisis takes him (and us) through various production sets, where ‘ration of dreams are made for all weary people in the world’.
“Hail, Caesar!” pretty much retains the majority of narrative threads from the previous works of Coen brothers’. It centers on a kidnapping as in “Fargo”, “Raising Arizona”, “The Big Lebowski”, although with zero blood splattering. The farcical period settings evokes the memory of “Hudsucker Proxy” & "Barton Fink”, and eventually it has contemplative themes about human existence as in “A Serious Man”, “The Man who wasn’t There” or “Inside Llewyn Davis”. Although this film lacks the brothers’ cheekier tone, the tone of deadpan absurdism keeps away the dull moments. As in many movies about Hollywood, Coen brothers’ concentrate on the ironies of stardom & film personalities. A great star able to wring out tears through soulful dialogue deliveries is as dumb as to remain morally & ideologically empty. An All-American musical star who sings about dames turns out to be a homosexual and hitches a ride in a Soviet Submarine. A beautiful, innocent-looking has a chaotic personal life and an accent that agitates people. And, even the ideological writers, who spout a lot about history, economics, new man & direct action confess that their demand for ransom is foremost an act of revenge on the studios. However, the Ethan & Joel Coen’s depiction of stars and Studio people is little empathetic than their exacting, eagle-eye observations (which also gives us more fun, as in “A Serious Man”).
What makes “Hail, Caesar!” idiosyncratic and more than a simple treatise on Hollywood machinations lies in the way it extends its ironies to observe upon themes that are in general about human condition. The characters in the film may bring to mind the names of Vincent Minnelli, Gene Kelly, Esther Williams, Loretta Young, Hedda Hopper, Charlton Heston and many others, but those are the meticulous details that fascinate the old Hollywood followers. And, the evocation of production shots of forgotten film genres like musicals & westerns serve as a fitting tribute to that era’s entertainers. However, the soul of film lies in the exploration of the themes like religious faith (Coens’ favorite one), authority and system. The film opens with a shot of deity and ends with a shot of alleged divine presence. If the opening Christ on the cross statue represents Mannix’ inner doubts & struggles about his work and future, the final shot of clear blue sky indicates Mannix’s transition for the better, by embracing an work that ‘feels right’. But, this isn’t a straightforward tale of studio chief, hoping for an answer from divine being or seeking a validation for the job he is doing. That well-balanced nihilistic and satirical elements we encounter in Coens’ works is diffused throughout. While Mannix through his stern belief in faith, work & family makes the positive changes, the rest of characters are all caught in their conflicting ideas about religion and authority.
The priests and rabbi gathered at Mannix’s office to discuss on the studio’s portrayal of Christ have different ideas about who God is? The rabbi dismisses Catholic and Protestant interpretations about the son of God and declares “God is bachelor and angry!” They only agree upon one thing, which is evident in the way their eyes widen at the mention of name ‘Baird Whitlock’, who is playing the main character. Although these religious men are divided over divine authority they confirm to an earthly influential figure. But, there is a subtle joke in the way this influential star figure is handled. Baird Whitlock might extract respect with just the mention on his name, but he is a mere pawn in the hands of authority. He is empty inside and agrees to everything people say to him. Like a mirror he reflects thing that’s put in front of him. It’s why he is easily enamored by the communist ideology (saying ‘I’m for the little man') so much as to recite it to Mannix. And, when he gets slapped by Mannix for those words, he is able to forget it and go back to studio sets to soulfully deliver a movie speech. Here, we can see the irony of how huge stars lack authority off-screen & gain it on-screen. It is also humorous to see how the actor playing one of title roles (Jesus Christ) is reduced to an extra actor. Alas, its like even the divine presence being relegated to the background in movie-making.
Is Mannix the authoritative figure? The communist writers in their study group talk about head & body politic. About how the head remains as brain or parasite in exploiting the body, a reference to the ‘little men’. From one perspective, Mannix does seem like an authority, especially the way he fixes things and commands big people (even his designation is called ‘Head’ of physical production). But, he himself is following orders or as Whitlock says ‘serves a system’ and he is always looking upon for divine authority, dreading over his little sins. Mannix thinks that as a head he is mutually controlling as well as serving the body, while the writers view his head as a figure of exploitation. We could also interpret that the ‘pictures’ itself are the authority or head. As Mannix says “the picture has worth and you have worth if you serve the picture”. But, even if Mannix is viewed as head or a part of something grander, this so-called authority isn’t written off as bad thing, since in the end there is something of merit or value (in the form of movies). If Whitlock is the figure of artificial authority and Mannix has real, valuable influence, then Channing Tatum’s song-and-dance star indicates the self-deception of authority. This musical star might have learnt a lot of ideologies, but uses deception to further his cause and even leaves out his followers, with no respite in sight. Nevertheless, the typical Coen Brother characteristics aren’t found in the three alleged heads of authority. Of course, their goody and painful reactions are pretty much what we usually witness in the directors’ protagonists. But, Alden Ehrenreich playing Hobie embodies the Coens’ distinctive simpleton character.
“Hail, Caesar!” is yet another work of Coen brothers’ that confounds expectations and challenges its viewers playfully. It could be easily perceived as a meaningless treatise on the bygone era of film-making. May be the glitzy star cast and not-so-perfect execution makes us to think that, but there are definitely some deep-rooted themes.