“It’s all in the hips, the lips, the eyes and the thighs”, according to Carlotta Valdez – one of many glitzy players who populate the lost world of the Coen Brothers’ latest title. Like Valdez, and almost all of the film’s characters, this comedy-drama fizzes with equal parts chicanery and pizzazz throughout the hundred-minute showbiz set piece, which bows out somewhere between a send-up of Golden Era Hollywood and love letter to it.
This zany, circadian narrative follows studio fixer Eddie Mannix (cast here in a rather more upstanding light than he is in the history books) around his manic daily business, as the odds-and-ends man making sure the wheels don’t fall off of various projects being shot under the roof of Capitol Pictures. Mannix’s work for this production company – one which “manufactures stories…day-lit dramas and moon-lit dreams” – among other things has him running frenetically around half of Hollywood in search of a kidnapped star (George Clooney’s dopey, cosseted lead), drugged and taken right from the set of a historical epic currently under completion: Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ.
If that double-hinged, deliberately overblown title doesn’t hint at it enough, this film – though probably coming in at the lighter end of the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre – takes the same Janus-faced approach to its story and subject matter as do many of the Brothers’ more obviously unsettling movies. As with Inside Llewyn Davis (whose dark undertones came as an equal surprise in a film ostensibly about the 1970’s folk music scene in New York), a noirish sense of conspiracy and foreboding are never far away in the madcap turns taken by this film’s plot – kind of like a Raymond Chandler story, with the unguided, freewheeling looseness of something like The Big Lebowski. Odd then, that Eddie Mannix – a tight-lipped, crust-earning family man who is first seen in the confession box, admitting he “snook a couple of cigarettes…maybe three” – should be the main focal point for this extrovert film’s somewhat shady and bizarre storyline.
The counterpoint Josh Brolin’s Mannix provides to much of the film’s action echoes the straight-faced deflationary humour and bathos of its full, extended title. One minute he’s trying to persuade an actress (Scarlett Johansson) to marry in order to avoid causing the Studio a PR problem on account of her innocent public persona; or creating legal fictions to get around these problems; fobbing off the press; and chasing down an organisation (who call themselves ‘The Future’) demanding $100,000 for the release of Baird Whitlock (Clooney). The next he’s in a situation as ordinary and everyday as asking his wife how his children got on that day in school; eating his dinner at home; being offered a job. In this way, the banal and the ridiculous constantly interrupt and undercut any declarations of the prophetic, the sublime or the serious in the film (in an early, unfinished screening of the hyberbolical Hail, Caesar! God’s much-discussed representation boils down to: “Divine presence to be shot”). An academic cabal of “exploited” writers seem as ludicrous in their Communist conspirings as Barton Fink did with his intention to write “for the common man” – one, in complete earnestness, voices how he likes to think he’s “changed some minds” with the Marxist subtexts in his (otherwise, very much commercial) Hollywood films.
Set against the quite stark political background of Cold War McCarthyism and the A-bomb, Hail, Caesar! finds plenty to laugh at and to keep the audience laughing. The at times slapstick, wacky humour and entertainment factor of the film feeds into almost everyone involved in the chaos – not just actors and directors, but all kinds of backroom boys, writers, journalists and other nominally ‘serious’ figures get in on the act (with or without intention). A big part of the film’s comedy (fittingly enough, for a Hollywood spoof) is in the many cameo appearances it features – a tap-dancing Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, a hilariously hammy Ralph Fiennes (“Would that it were so simple…”), Scarlett Johansson, (the list goes on). All these names, anecdotes and tid-bits of bizarre non-information are continually self-referenced over the course of the movie, in part imitating the exclusive circles and in-jokes that make up the glittering, enclosed bubble of Hollywood no less now than it did then. Consequently, just as you sense with the arrival of the hawkish twin columnists played outstandingly by Tilda Swinton – both at pains to point out they’re serious journalists and absolutely not gossip merchants (“the facts are never beneath me”, she squawks early on as Thora Thacker…or was it Thesally?) – there’s this feeling of double take all over the movie, which lends it its peculiar comic tone. Is Hail, Caesar! packed full of red herrings, or is there something more substantial brimming just under the surface?
The craziness only continues to work its way into the fold, as Hail, Caesar! marches boldly onwards. Sir Michael Gambon’s voice-over, which slips between the film-within-a-film Hail, Caesar! and the wider, framing narrative we’re watching, is brilliantly inflated and over-dramatic. Put to equally good use is Roger Deakins’ deft camerawork, which visibly lifts some of the lengthy choreographed routines (synchronised swimming, anyone?) into more watchable, entertaining ground. In fact, it’s often because of these technical sleights of hand and a steady supply of light-hearted gags, that the viewer’s attention remains glued to certain stretches of Hail, Caesar! which could otherwise have strayed into maddening tedium.
Just at some points when the picture begins to drag, Mannix is himself confronted with the same questions of faith that this film raises (half-seriously, half-facetiously). He’s told the movie business will soon die, that it’s “frivolous”, packed with oddballs and ultimately that it’s a waste of his valuable time which would be much better spent working on altogether more ‘serious’ matters. It’s condemned roundly by those at the heart of filmmaking as a tool of capitalism whose main function is to churn out comforting lies and fantasies designed to distract society’s worker ants from the bleak, austere and war-torn reality that is unfolding around them every day. But in spite of all this, Mannix appears to hold onto his Christ-like devotion to the industry with the same unerring trust and conviction he shows in the opening confession box scene, before he has to head out to prevent a “French postcard situation” from taking place.
A-list kidnappings, Soviet-linked conspiracy, an intrusive and unscrupulous press, unpredictable weirdos at every turn, uncooperative employees…for most people, this would simply be too much to handle. But, for Mannix, it appears this is all in a day’s work.
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