Everyone loves a good movie about the movies.
Hollywood’s fetish for self-mythologizing1 lends itself to tales of stardom2 and scathing satire3 alike, but few films imbue Tinseltown with the same glow or seeming reverence as the Coen Brothers’ latest.
Hail, Caesar! takes the real-life persona of Eddie Mannix (played here in highly fictionalized form by Josh Brolin)4, the archetypal studio “fixer”, and transforms him into a Christlike figure. When hapless matinee idol Baird Whitlock (George Clooney5) is snatched from the set of a sword-and-sandals Biblical epic — also titled Hail, Caesar!6 — it falls to Mannix to secure his return.
This involves negotiating with his mysterious kidnappers7, a group who call themselves The Future; all while handling the (mis)casting of singing cowboy Hobie Doyle8 (Alden Ehrenreich), the pregnancy of an Esther Williams-like aqua-musical star (Scarlett Johansson)9, and being hounded by twin gossip columnists (both Tilda Swinton).
Segueing through various period appropriate period pieces — including a perma-tanned Channing Tatum in a homo-erotically charged Anchors Aweigh pastiche10 — the film is comprised of a few witty cameos11 and some good ideas12, but its all subtext, no stakes.13
Hardly the conquering hero, Hail, Caesar! is at best a knockabout second-rater amid the Coen canon. A Burn After Reading without the bite, Intolerable Cruelty without the cruelty, in looking at the stars, the film strays too far from the gutter, losing sight of the salaciousness that might have made this a memorable affair instead of just another trip to the movies.
1 It can only be so long before we get a biopic of James Cagney that features an actor playing Cagney playing, say, Lon Chaney (as Cagney did in 195’s Man of a Thousand Faces), who is himself playing a character.
2 E.g. The Player.
3 E.g. A Star Is Born.
4 The real Mannix was an executive at MGM who had no kids and at least one longterm affair. He was also implicated in the apparent suicide of George Reeves, TV’s original Superman, as dramatised in the film Hollywoodland. In short, not the sort of guy likely to worry unduly about the cost to his immortal soul of sneaking a few cigarettes.
5 A worthy addition to Clooney’s roster of numbskulls, Whitlock is a goggle-eyed sap, an empty vessel ready to be filled with words and ideals, like the florid oratory of a Roman officer who undergoes a religious conversion when faced by Christ the godhead (who, incidentally, does not appear in this film).
6 Albeit with the added subtitle “A Tale of the Christ” — the film, after all, owes a debt to Ben-Hur.
7 The words of a Roman officer, or those of a “study group” of Communist screenwriters with a passion for Heidegger and lack of appreciation for irony.
8 A charming, slightly bumptious fellow who’s utterly loyal to the studio and good with a lasso. But not quite a home in Merrily We Dance, a cool, sophisticated prestige pic directed by Ralph Fiennes’ Laurence Lorenz, an impeccably mannered Vincente Minelli stand-in whose controlled, self-effacing frustration is a wonder to behold.
9 Introduced to us a manically smiling mermaid in an elaborate synchronized swimming sequence, she’s revealed to be a brusque Brooklyn gal: “How am I? Wet,”
10 Just call him Gene Commie.
11 Including Jonah Hill as the world’s most reliable surety agent (he’s bonded) and Dolph Lundgren in silhouette.
12 Mostly along the lines of how the division of God mirrors the division of labor, which plays into the surprisingly conservative notion of, essentially, “knowing your place”. They do give the rabbi a few good lines, though: “You worship a God who doesn’t love anyone.” “Not true. he loves Jews.”
13 Excluding a nasty bit of business involving Frances McDormand’s hyper-efficient, chain-smoking editor and a projector — perhaps the film’s only true striking moment — there’s nothing harsher here than a few slaps. Even compared to Inside Llewyn Davis, which at least had some Greenwich Village pettiness and self-loathing, this is mild stuff.