A film review by Barbara Castle
Ok, so I confess, Hail, Caesar!, the Coen brothers’ just released comedy about old Hollywood, beckoned me come for one reason…True Grit.
I’m not one for the brothers’ dry-witted, odd-ball, unreal life depictions – but I hoped for something soul-feeding in the way that Arkansan Mattie Ross’ hell-bent journey to find justice for her Papa’s murder via Rooster Cogburn was – or at least some modicum of appreciation for a well told story with an interesting worldview. Caesar falls way short on the story-telling, but on worldview…well, let’s just say that it requires some thought – though not worth the expenditure.
Hearing that Caesar gave some sort of homage to the glory days of MGM, and, more importantly that the theatre had just been upgraded with new motor-reclining seats, the place was packed. We stood with popcorn in hand (or in my case, pretzels in purse) as the previous patrons exclaimed Caesar’s praises on exiting (Lord knows why) – the majority of which were baby-boomers and beyond (we tend to long for the Hollywood of It’s a Wonderful Life). True to Coen form, they wish to dash any wistful dreams we may have about the once and former “goodness” of movie makers…sort of.
Whether intended or not, I found the plotline to be mostly truthful about humanity and the worldviews in which we trade. The Coen’s reflect into the story the deification of the movie industry by the audience; a subtle point that Joel and Ethan appear to mock (because it is mock-worthy).
In sorting through worldview, I have made a few observations; though I’m sure there may be more if one were to understand the backstories privy to Coen research.
The plot revolves around Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who is the “Head of Physical Production” at Capitol Pictures in the 1950’s. He’s what was known at the time as a “fixer,” tasked with making the wrongs right and keeping bad press at bay (based on a real fixer of the same name). In the course of a little more than a day, Mannix has his hands full at every tick of the clock with possible erupting scandals. His day begins before daylight as he is paying off the police to keep quiet about one of his starlets found taking questionable pictures, but more about Mannix further down. Let’s look at some of the catastrophes he averts.
DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is a brash Esther Williams type who is pregnant out-of-wedlock and finding it hard to fit into her mermaid costume. Not wanting to marry the father, but agreeing that her squeaky clean image with the fans must be preserved, she asked if she can adopt her own child after going away for several months out of the public’s view (reminds one of Clark Cable and Loretta Young). Mannix is right on it with the studio attorney who arranges for their “surety man” Joseph Silverman (Jonah Hill) to take the child into foster care until the time is right for Moran to adopt.
Nothing is hinted that Moran considered abortion, as was the case with many starlets of the time. Not only did she want her baby to live, she didn’t want to put it up for a real adoption, opting instead to surrender to motherhood (albeit single). Her desire, or one could say, her love for the unborn child extended to the all too human understanding for the need of a father. When Silverman extends his employment-bound duty, Moran eventually finds something beyond job requirement in the gesture and they are married. Mannix is pleased.
Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is the lovable B-western star that is talented in singing, roping, and riding, but not acting. Doyle is a consistently genuine un-spoiled character – a person that can’t fake or lie to the audience. Unfortunately, he is all that is left on the lot for Mannix to substitute in an upper class film with lavish sets, evening gowns, and fine men’s suits. Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) plays the dismayed director who cannot tame the awkward ways of the simple, but respectful and apt to please Doyle. Laurentz is perhaps the polar opposite of his protagonist in appearance, temperament, character, and most of all – worldview
Doyle ultimately cannot understand the words and meaning of the director. Just as Laurentz’s name dabbles in doubling, so his life is scandal ridden with rumors of an affair with a leading man (that we will meet shortly). He and Doyle demonstrate, by way of verbal mimicry, the difficulty of the one man (and his worldview) understanding the other man (and his worldview). “Would that it were so simple,” is a brilliant line to this end.
Further along we find a scene connected to this when Mannix steps in to the cutting room to find C.C. Calhoun (Frances McDormand) editing Doyle’s scene. She rewinds her film for Mannix to review, but just before we find out if Doyle ever got the line right – her scarf gets caught in the machine and nearly chokes her to death (a ripe metaphor for the dangerous propaganda carefully crafted in Hollywood). Saved by Mannix (as is everyone), the edited film continues to reveal the line was substituted for “it’s complicated.”
Early in the film we are introduced to Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the studio star working on a biblically based epic titled Hail, Caesar: A Story of the Christ. Reminiscent of Ben Hur (Carlton Heston) and The Robe (Victor Mature), the plot is about a Roman soldier that is converted to Christianity through the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross. Whitlock is drugged and kidnapped by a cabal of Hollywood screenwriters who fancy themselves as “The Future.”
They bring him to a seaside home that brought to mind a Hitchcock film, though I can’t quite place it. It is here that the impressionable feckless star is introduced to Dr. Marcuse and the ideas of Communism. The real Herbert Marcuse came from the Frankfurt school as a scholar extolling the virtues of Marx. He was a critic of capitalism and of the entertainment industry – yet in a perverse way – as the screenwriter’s point out, he was the father of the New Left and they worked to get his worldview inculcated into film. It was in this milieu that Ayn Rand found herself as a Hollywood counter-culture screen writer (think: Fountainhead).
Whitlock’s captors tell him about how the one-percent (Studio owners and bosses) have confiscated the vast wealth made from the film industry – while writers and actors are given penitence as pay. They constantly snipe at one another – but seem eager to share in the $100,000 ransom as a sort of social justice. Although Whitlock’s first reaction is to let them know how well he believes himself to be treated (and paid), he is malleable to their economic argument.
So rich in irony of today’s Hollywood where though the actors enjoy the fruit of capitalism, so quickly do they align themselves with perceived victims of the system. Never thinking to forego their wealth, status, or luxury jet rides for the cause of poverty, social justice, or global warming (respectively). Likewise, they point outward at the racist inclinations of the people in America (those other than themselves) when the irony is that they are hoisted on their own petard of #oscarssowhite.
Back at the studio Mannix is preparing the $100,000 ransom money to obtain the release of Whitlock (presumably out of petty cash – as money answers most of the crises he encounters). A sincerely conscientious man, Mannix started his day at confession where he worried with even the smallest of infractions. Even the priest was weary of his daily visits. But Mannix is a man of conviction, empathy, and fairness, not to mention a host of other admirable qualities. A likable and competent guy, we easily understand why Lockheed corporation is aggressively seeking him.The job offer in itself is a worldview conundrum for Mannix. Should he go with the easier, less stressful career where he can be home for dinner each night with his wife and two children?
It’s not that cut and dry though because just as Doyle and Laurentz found out – it is complicated. Lockheed represents the future technology that Marcuse abhors; the corporate capitalism (crony capitalism) that partners with the government to build an endless war machine. Yet, Hollywood represents, if we are to believe the screenwriters, another kind of capitalism that has gone astray from its true potential of partnering with ideologues in promoting the progressive worldview of the left. A world where one day those like Mannix will not have to “fix” actors involved in pornography, adultery, Marxism, or homosexuality (because these things will no longer be scandalous). For now Mannix is caught in the old world where the Christian Bible is the best place to find story material and where he must deal with the contradictions within the pervading Jewishness of the industry and the Christianness of the audiences.
It is the movie goers that insist that the stars live up to the characters they play on screen. Mannix is deflecting and cajoling the rumor mill columnists, two sisters (Heda Hopper crossed with the Lander’s sisters)….who are about to release the story of the torrid alleged affair of Laurentz, the director and Whitlock, the beloved actor. “Twenty-million readers want the truth Eddie!” …….”truth,” he mutters as he runs away with the ransom money in tow. Not only is his top star costing him $100,000 – the new biblical epic could go the way of Rome.
While discussing the kidnapping in his office with Doyle (the cowboy actor) – Mannix uses Doyle’s belt to secure the brief case full of ransom money. Which brings us to Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) who serves the role of dancer extraordinaire (Gene Kelley) in a homo-centric choreography to the tune of “No Dames.” It is his home in which the kidnappers are hold up. Doyle notices the belt-wrapped case in the possession of Gurney after Mannix was instructed to leave it at a particular location. Doyle follows Gurney to his home where he and the screenwriters (along with Dr. Marcuse) are piled into a dingy with the ransom money and are headed out to sea. Met by a rising soviet submarine, Gurney climbs the metal ladder to board when the adoring occupants of the boat insist that he take with him the $100,000 in ransom – for the cause.
It is in this scene that one gets a sense of the “religious” nature of even the most confessing atheistic worldview. While once complaining about capitalism and justifying their demand for the ransom because they deserved more of the wealth brought in by means of their art (namely screenwriting) – they now in unison freely sacrificially give their spoils (“It’s not ransom….it’s payback!”) to the communist gods on some distant blissful shore of utopia. Gurney’s indifference to them when he drops the briefcase into the sea is typical of statism that requires the liberty of individuals only to be wasted, as no greater good is ever accomplished (except for the elite).
Mannix is on a mission, perhaps divine. The story around the story is the metaphor of Mannix as a Christ figure, taking direction from the studio god on phone line, paying ransom, and getting help from the Holy Spirit figure of the meek Doyle as he reveals to him that the culprit behind the kidnapping is most likely “extras” and then capturing the prodigal son (Whitlock) and returning him to a place of repentance at the foot of the cross. Perhaps the Coen’s are mocking at the Trinity in substituting Hollywood for the godhead….but in the eyes of many Americans, the worship of celebrity is not off the mark.
In an extraordinarily biblically correct climax – Whitlock, who is mesmerizing in his description of the meaning of the sacrifice of Christ toward humanity, and who has all those in the studio raptured toward belief – fumbles the final line of which he cannot recall the one ingredient necessary for finding truth. As he mutters and swears at his faulty memory, his fellow cast members and studio staff barks out “faith!”Ah, the one thing necessary, but so elusive in Hail, Caesar!
In the end, the film just fizzes out in typical post-modern fashion. There are no heroes, no redemption, no meta-narrative (just a bunch of micro-narratives) that leave one feeling that nothing matters because we’re all headed to Armageddon (as the scene with Lockheed reminds us). Very unsatisfactory indeed.