Saturday, February 6, 2016

On the Big Screen: HAIL CAESAR! (2016)

Hail Caesar! may be Joel and Ethan Coens' most infuriatingly lazy film. They've been lazy before, but their laziest effort heretofore, Burn After Reading, was redeemed by hilarious performances from George Clooney, John Malkovich and Brad Pitt. Clooney's along for the ride again, in his fourth film for the brothers, but this time he has pathetically little to work with. You can sum it up as "dumb actor" or, at most, "impressionable actor." He never gets to go over the top as he did in Burn After Reading, nor does anyone else in the overcrowded cast. The problem may be that the picture isn't about Clooney's dumb actor nor any of the other eccentric contract players at Capitol Pictures. Instead, it's left to Josh Brolin to hold the picture together as Eddie Mannix, Capitol's "head of physical production." Named after the nearly legendary M-G-M fixer who figures in many Hollywood myths, Caesar's Mannix is a hustling, guilt-haunted manager who answers reverently to the unseen and also-based-on-reality moneyman Nicholas Schenck. Along with tracking down or ransoming his kidnapped actor -- I assume everyone knows that detail from the commercials -- Mannix has to create a cover story for the impending birth of an illegitimate child to his squeaky-clean swimming star (Scarlett Johansson), smooth the transition of the studio's singing-cowboy star (Alden Ehrenreich) to drawing-room dramas, and secure the approval of Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Jewish leaders for the Hail Caesar! picture within Hail Caesar!, a mash-up of Sam Zimbalist's M-G-M epics Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959) in which the Clooney character stars, and all while placating, stalling or lying to rival gossip columnists who are twin sisters (Tilda Swinton x2). On top of all that, he has to consider a promising job offer from Lockheed that could save him from a doomed business while trying (and failing) to quit smoking. All this results in an amusing satirical scene with the religious leaders, in which the Jew is perhaps more mocking than he might have been at the actual time, and a framing gag about Mannix's obsessive recourse to the confessional. The joke here is that Mannix lives by lying, or at least by making promises he's not sure of fulfilling, yet the lies he confesses to have to do with his promise to his wife to quit smoking. It's as if he doesn't recognize most of his own lies as lies, but that's par for the course in Hail Caesar!, where the main thematic subtext is a human capacity for self-delusion that found midcentury expression in both Hollywood bible epics and the International Communist Conspiracy.

This is a meta movie in which the film itself and the film within the film are both narrated by Michael Gambon. That's meant to call our attention to the essentially mythic nature of the main story, in which a more malevolent version of the Hollywood Ten carries out the Clooney kidnapping and at least one major studio star is an active agent of the U.S.S.R. I'd like to assume that the unreality of the whole thing is obvious enough that no 21st century leftists will cry foul, though they may resent the parallels the Coens present between communism and Christianity. They're more amused than we are, I suspect, by the idea of Clooney being more or less converted by the commies, if only because he's so sociably impressionable, while he's such a bad actor that he can't sell the spiritual experiences of his movie character, a Roman converted to Christianity. But the way they film both the argument of the religious leaders over the nature of Jesus and the doctrinal bickering of the commies suggests that they view both Christianity and communism with their characteristic, much-deplored distanced disdain. Let's put it this way: I was never so conscious of how dialectics almost rhymes with dianetics as I was while watching this film, though that may have a lot to do with the time period Caesar! is set in, c. 1956. This is all rather interesting, but after a certain point the Coens give up on using the story to demonstrate the argument, and give up on the story as well.

Another germ of an idea is Caesar!'s use of the singing cowboy character. Presumably inspired by John Mack Brown, a retrospectively implausible leading man for Greta Garbo, and Tim Holt, who actually acquitted himself admirably in The Magnificent Ambersons, Hobie Doyle seems intended to emerge as the true protagonist of the film and a sort of amateur detective. His insight about extras being more suspicious than regular crew members is proven correct by what we've already seen of Clooney's kidnapping, and it's Hobie who follows the money to Clooney's place of comfortable confinement. One can imagine the fantastic or satirical potential of a singing cowboy solving the mystery, but the Coens clearly were uninterested in making the sort of comic action picture that would have resulted. Similarly, Hobie has a charming first date, arranged by the studio, with a Carmen Miranda-esque musical star (Veronica Osario), but the Coens aren't interested in following up on it. Likewise, the identity of a commie spy within the studio is clearly meant to surprise us, but since the Coens couldn't be bothered to build that character up as a person rather than a mere performer, the revelation leaves us indifferent. The brothers reject every opportunity to create thrills, and might argue that they never meant to make a thrill picture, but when the potential is so obviously there you can't help seeing the end result as slapdash and half-finished. For almost the first time I could believe the libel that the Coens are self-satisfied and contemptuous toward their audience, given how half-assed Hail Caesar! is. Maybe they got distracted by the writing for hire they've done lately for Steven Spielberg and Angelina Jolie, but none of that justifies the mess they've dumped on us. There's still just enough comedy to keep this from being their worst film -- their 2001-4 run remains the trough of their career -- but knowing what the Coens are capable of when they really care, I suspect I'll dislike this one more than many films that are objectively worse. Some people can't help making bad films, but when the Coen Brothers do it, it's like they're ripping you off. Perhaps they'd like to confess something now, but I doubt it.

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