The Coen brothers are very inconsistent, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t love some of their “classics”, like The Big Lebowski or Barton Fink. I do really like some of their quirky stuff, like The Hudsucker Proxy or Fargo. While I don’t always love their films, they’re never boring.
I am very much of two minds about Hail, Caesar! For one thing, I am all about recreating the golden age of the studio system. Watching these Twenty-first Century stars (Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, George Clooney) play loosely adapted versions of 50s stars (Gene Kelley, Esther Williams, Charleton Heston) is super fun. Every scene from one of these in-universe movies is a joy. What’s more, they are played absolutely straight. There’s no irony or winking at the audience. These look like exactly what they’re supposed to be. In particular, the song and dance number “No Dames,” in which Tatum proves once and for all that he’s a solid gold movie star, was so good I was positively giddy watching it.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t humor to be mined from the excesses of this era of Hollywood, or the crazy differences from more recent cinema. For example, the fact that there was a market for multiple films starring a woman who was really only good at swimming is kind of amazing. But that’s what the film industry was sixty-plus years ago.
This leads me to the aspect of this film that I love, but which, in a way, doesn’t work. The film is about 50s Hollywood, but it’s also very carefully constructed to feel like it is also a product of 50s Hollywood. Camera angles, dialogue, story points, they all (with a few weird exceptions, which I’ll mention below) feel like they are of the time. This isn’t parody or satire. This is homage, through and through. And for that reason, the film seemed to keep me at a remove. It felt like a time capsule more than a trenchant criticism (or screwball comedy) about the studio system.
At the center of the film is Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix, the head of production at Paramount Studios. We see him wrangle clergy and their opinions about the titular biblical epic, Hail, Caesar! We see him work out a solution to an unexpected pregnancy for Johansson’s tough talking DeeAnna Moran. We see him negotiate the replacement of a missing star in a high society picture with a rough-around-the-edges cowboy star (Alden Ehrenreich). The most troubling task during this one day in Eddie’s life is the kidnapping of his Hail, Caesar! star, Baird Whitlock (Clooney).
The real through line for the whole film is that Eddie is weighing the trials and tribulations of his current job against a very tempting “real world” offer of a job at Lockheed. The most annoying thing about the film for me is the fact that this overarching story is far less interesting than any of the other subplots. I would happily watch an entire movie about all those other stories, but what I get are bits and pieces. I guess if I get 33% of three amazing movies, I should feel like I got one movie. But I don’t. I feel like I missed out on 67% of three amazing movies.
I had such wonderful emotional reactions to much of what happened, but intellectually, I feel like I was cheated out of a complete cinematic experience. And that bugs me. I can recommend this to big fans of old school Hollywood, or to big fans of the Coen brothers. Other than that, it’s a pass.
Now, I do have some spoilers as I continue to nitpick.
As I said above, there are a handful of exceptions to the structure of homage, topics that this film addresses that, I don’t believe, films of the era would ever touch. These story points really jumped out at me. Maybe that was the intent, but it degrades the entire experience for me.
The biggest one are the references to homosexuality. In the “No Dames” number, there are a couple off-hand jokes about guy on guy action that I don’t think would have worked in 1952. (There’s also a more blatant joke about masturbation that made me laugh.) Perhaps the point is that, back then, this kind of innuendo would have been accidental, but it jumps out at me so obviously that I can’t chalk it up to that. There’s also a minor subplot about a possible gay affair between two of the male characters, along with a gossip columnist (Tilda Swinton) who really wants to run the story in her paper. While I don’t doubt that kind of thing happened back then, it wouldn’t have happened in a movie.
Ditto the pregnancy subplot. I might be wrong about that, and maybe films of the era did address that kind of thing, but I doubt it.
In one of the scenes between Eddie and the Lockheed recruiter, there’s a really awkward moment where atomic bombs are kind of forced into the conversation. I know that was a big part of the whole zeitgeist of the time, but it feels out of place in this movie. Films back then (I’m pretty sure) did not address the arms race quite so directly. (Heck, I remember that on Gilligan’s Island, which was in the 60s, the topic was dealt with in a very general and kind of non-threatening way.)
The weirdest decision they made was to have Baird Whitlock’s kidnappers be a cadre of communist screenwriters, guys who claim to be doing exactly what McCarthy and the other fear-mongerers back then said they were doing, trying to promote a communist agenda through their writing. I don’t know what the Coens were trying to say here. Is it a satire of the feelings of the time? If so, that supports the idea that Hail, Caesar! is attempting to be a film of the time itself. But, ironically, that falls apart, because films of the time (again, I am making assumptions) didn’t address concepts so literally. And they certainly didn’t do so in lighthearted comedies like this one. Because that side of the artifice falls apart, I’m left with the assumption that the Coens are simply making a joke about the Communist hysteria of the time at the expense of people who were very negatively affected by it. That leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
It’s a shame that there are so many things to annoy in a film with so many other pleasures.