The Coens’ ‘Hail, Caesar!’: A nostalgia trip to nowhere

While often entertaining and insightful, “Hail, Caesar!” falls far short as either a satire or a coherent commentary on Hollywood’s ill-fated Golden Age.

George Clooney in "Hail, Caesar!" (Screen grab from Universal Studios movie trailer)

WASHINGTON, February 17, 2016 – Nostalgia is always a strange thing— strange in the way people filter through actual memories; strange in how they create moments better than they were and make threats bigger than they ever were; and strange in the way they indulge in an overall misremembering of events.

The trick when creating a nostalgia-based film is always how to administer the correct nostalgia dosage while at the same time never rejecting outright any useful new information for the sake of conjuring up a filtered and possibly false past. This is one of the major dilemmas the audience will encounter in Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film, “Hail, Caesar!” The story line of their current effort deals exclusively with the 1950s era when the studio system-driven age of Hollywood was nearing its peak.

Most film historians today refer to the studio-system era as the “Golden Age of Hollywood.” However, that’s a little misleading. Such an historical label implies that things were inherently “better” back in the day.

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But this common refrain is frequently promoted by people who are out of step to varying degrees with the march of modernity. They tend not to accept the hard reality that things always tend to move forward. While the outward trappings of art might change, the quality that lies at its core tends to remain stable no matter how radically different its outward manifestations seem to be.

The Coen brothers understand on a general level even if their actual product hasn’t visibly changed much over the years. But while their methods and style might not change, they continue move forward in other ways. That’s because they’ve become something of a genre in and of themselves, and in some ways have removed themselves from inhabiting the role of contemporary filmmakers in the process.

Comparing the Coens to what’s modern in terms of art or popularity today feels irrelevant, simply because they’re always going to be who they are. Some filmgoers might feel this act is becoming boring, determining in advance that any new Coen brothers film is no longer important enough to matter. Yet others could watch the Coens do their thing forever.

In a way, “Hail, Caesar!” grapples with these issues, in part because the film deals with the way the force of relentless modernity inevitably encroaches on everyone. Some individuals try desperately to cling to the past. Their polar opposites aggressively attempt to predict and even mold the way the imagine the future is going to play out. Still others, perhaps few in number, simply hunker down, try to weather the storm and adjust to where life and society ultimately land.

Yet only those with a clear view of how things are going to shake out are individuals with little control over the future, whether due to their own ethical system and morals or by simple happenstance.

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This is a common thread that runs through the Coen brothers’ films. That’s especially true with their comedies. At the center of each of their films, the most competent tends to be the one who has the least control over how the story progresses. This central individual, after all, has to deal with an increasing number of oddballs. In the case of “Hail, Caesar!”, that individual is Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix, a heavily fictionalized version of the eponymous studio executive/producer.

The undercurrent in “Hail, Caesar!” is Eddie Mannix’ ongoing effort to keep his studio’s big budget production—which shares this 2016 movie’s title—solvent, dodging the curve balls that reality continues to pelt him with from all sides.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that nothing goes smoothly in Hollywood, whether in real life or in comic farce. Mannix throughout most of the film we are watching, Mannix is out of his office and almost always motion trying to stave off some disaster.

From the outset, Mannix demonstrates his strong suit: showing up almost at a random to fix some situation with one of the studio’s starlets. He’s good at his job, cleaning up issues that could cost the studio a pretty penny. Yet the very necessity of Mannix constantly-in-demand EMS service is a clear indication that the tight grip by studio bosses on the system they had created is starting to crumble. The latest starlet situation fix might be okay now, but it suggests a foreboding future for the once-mighty but now quietly declining studio system.

The conceit of this film is an old one: it’s a story within a story, a frame tale, in which the “Hail, Caesar!” we’re watching is all about a 1950s in-process film of the same name, an attempt by the fictional Capitol Pictures to create a classy and modern take on the Christ story.

Because of the religiously sensitive subject matter, Mannix is forced to meet and negotiate with various Jewish and Christian representative heads to make sure there’s nothing religiously offensive within the final script. Arguments quickly ensue among these religious guests about the nature of religion, the legitimacy of Jesus Christ, and the basics of script construction even before anyone Mannix’ simple, basic query.

This kind of contentious encounter is repeated numerous times throughout the film whether involving Tilda Swinton’s dueling twin gossip columnists, fussy directors, various extraneous actors, or an outside job opportunity. Mannix’ efforts to keep things from falling apart are relatively successful.

But at the same time, all these mini-firestorms point to how little control Mannix actually has. Everything here points to the end of an era. As something of a minnow in a much larger and more dangerous stream, all Mannix can do is survive.

But Mannix’ efforts shed light on this film’s actual plot. The greater antagonists in this film are aptly named “The Future” – a communist cell operating out of Hollywood and largely ensconced within Capitol Pictures—and the studio itself.

“The Future” is plotting to kidnap George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the 1950s “Hail, Caesar!” The aim: to ransom him for $100,000, presumably to fund this conspiracy’s further activities. This is where “Hail, Caesar!” (the 2016 movie) reaches its most absurd moments, as “The Future” and Whitlock discuss what their politics actually are, a process that explicitly mirrors Mannix’ earlier squabble-fest with the religious leaders.

Anything involving “The Future” is inherently ridiculous in this film. Yet this whole construct strikes a more interesting chord in relation to the time period involved and the controversy unfolding inside Hollywood at the time—one that, in a way, persists to this day. There have been numerous films over the last several years depicting the blacklisted screenwriters and their relation to the HUAC trials, the most recent of which was 2015’s “Trumbo.”

What’s unique with “Hail, Caesar!” is this: the screenwriters depicted in the Coen brothers’ film – all of whom, it should be noted, are carefully fictionalized – are always explicitly referred to as “communists,” even when these screenwriters are discussing themselves. This is much different direction than the evasive path most Hollywood films take on the topic. More often than not, the actual political ideology of the screenwriters and producers involved is skirted around in film treatments of Tinseltown during this era.

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Of course much of this apparently frank treatment of Hollywood politics is because the Coens aren’t trying to make any broad political statement beyond depicting those individuals involved in this film. Rather than making a political statement, the Coens seem intent on developing a kaleidoscopic vision that mirrors, albeit in a satirical vein, the real Hollywood of that era.

But the more set pieces that are tossed into this film’s mix, the more diffuse it gets. There are at least five different set pieces coming from films around the studio and each of them feels like a completely different universe.

This is where “Hail, Caesar!” loses a lot of its narrative and creative steam. There are simply too many things going on in the film. The main plot thrust – or at least the promoted one – is “the Future’s” kidnapping of Whitlock and Mannix’ subsequent attempts to deal with it. True, this dovetails with a few of the threads running within the film. But while each individual thread is amusing on its own, each feels utterly disconnected from the whole.

Over all, the disparate energy the Coen brothers create “Hail, Caesar!” is enjoyable as far as it goes. But taken together, this film’s diffuse threads don’t make a coherent statement, resulting in a movie that in many ways is lighter than air and not all that significant. The Coens don’t seem to be commenting on much more than the already well known truth that Hollywood and its associated systems are generally crazy, and there’s often a lot of pushback against the nonsense.

As Joel and Ethan Coen continue making films, “Hail, Caesar!” will eventually be regarded as a lightweight effort geared toward attracting the already converted. The larger cultural importance of the Coens will reside in their past successful films and, perhaps, others yet to come.

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