The Coen Brothers take a loving, if uneven, look at classic Hollywood
That there was a time when actors weren’t looked to as fonts of wisdom and understanding seems unbelievable now. As we dive headfirst into the silly season of American politics, Twitter and Facebook will come alive with celebrity endorsements for political candidates, using their fame and fortune to appear more knowledgeable about foreign and economic policy than the average cashier at Walmart, while simultaneously promoting anti-vaccination propaganda or claiming the Earth is flat. Some people will believe them because some people are easily led and the world will continue spinning as it always has.
But there was a time when actors weren’t also pundits, when they didn’t produce and direct their own movies, when they were part of a studio assembly line, when decisions were made from the top down, a time before actors were more likely working stiffs and less likely NFL free agents.
Hail, Caesar!, the latest film by Joel and Ethan Coen, explores this world of 1950s film studios and while it may not be one of their most notable films, it is certainly one of their more inventive. There is a genuine love for old Hollywood film in Hail, Caesar!, just as previous Coen films have paid tribute to the 1960s folk scene and the 1930s South. It’s a wonderful film about the making of movies.
While Hail, Caesar! has something of an overarching plot, it works best as a series of smaller vignettes into the backlot of Hollywood films. The audience follows a clean version of Eddie Mannix, a character loosely based on the MGM film executive and “fixer” for the stars of the same name. Mannix is tired. He is contemplating a career change at a time when it was easy for a man to move from Hollywood production to aviation without night classes and thousands of dollars in student loans.
His current job of wrangling film stars and protecting them from their poor decisions appears to be a constant game of Whack-a-Mole. One is drunk constantly while another can’t act while another has become pregnant out of wedlock and refuses to get married again after having two marriages annulled by the nefarious and shady Capitol Pictures Legal Department.
His biggest concern, however, is how he can’t stop smoking even when he promised his wife he would. In the midst of his regular tumultuous life, his top star has been kidnapped, and the kidnappers are demanding $100,000 for his safe return.
The headaches of Eddie Mannix aren’t really the point of the film, however. The point is to revisit the time period, to remember the films and the stars, and to revel in the nostalgia of a simpler style of filmmaking.
Not that anything we see is especially simple. The films, from aquatic spectaculars to absurd acrobatic westerns, from high octane sailor musicals to biblical epics with giant budgets, are expertly choreographed and directed. It’s a reminder of the talent behind the films of this era.
The more films of this type that the audience has seen, the more enjoyable they will find the film. It is keenly aware of the absurdity of the films, made more and more sensational to compete with the burgeoning television industry.
The film shines more, however, in the smaller, behind the scenes moments, which accentuate the idea that no matter how dramatic, no matter how momentous, film is a collective effort of people who aren’t actors or directors, just people with clipboards and a job to do. The guy being crucified next to Jesus Christ gets breakfast, but the quality of the breakfast depends on whether or not he’s an extra. It’s someone’s job to figure it out.
Hail, Caesar! won’t have the cult status of a comedy like The Big Lebowski or the success of O Brother Where Art Thou, but it is a highly entertaining film. Of particular note is the running time, which clocks in at just over an hour and half. In an era when directors are routinely ignoring the advice of their editors, it’s nice to see a story told concisely, without pretention.
The film may be a footnote in the greater collection of the Coen Brothers’ filmography, but it’s a worthwhile surprise this early in the year.
Photo courtesy Universal Pictures