ITHACA, N.Y. — If all is not already lost, steer clear of the dire Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and check out Hail, Caesar!, a backlot farce written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, now playing at Cinemapolis.
In a deliberate muddling of the truth à la the Coens’ Fargo, Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a producer and “fixer” very loosely based on the Warner Bros. executive of the same name.
But whereas the real-life Mannix was infamous for his temper and association in the suspect death of actor George Reeves (known for the title role in 1950s television serial Adventures of Superman, and subsequently portrayed by Ben Affleck in Hollywoodland, as it so happens…), Brolin’s Mannix is a blunt yet doting family man, a fiercely committed Catholic who attends confession so often his priest feels compelled to admit to him, “You’re not that bad.”
But taming a ledger’s worth of stars demands an iron fist, and that is precisely the job Mannix performs so well. The opening alone will send P.C. detectors into the red, with Mannix breaking up a starlet’s late-night “French postcard situation” and striking her across the face before sending her home.
As the muscle for the fictional “Capitol Pictures,” operating a retiree’s age ago in 1951, Mannix must also arrange for studio bombshell (Scarlett Johansson) to adopt the child she bore out of wedlock, and fend off a pair of identical gossip vultures — rival twins, played by Tilda Swinton, ever marvelous — from publishing homophobic rumors about the studio’s biggest star.
That star is Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, of Batman & Robin infamy), and the headache to rule them all hits when communists kidnap him from the set of Capitol’s latest sword-and-sandal epic (titled “Hail, Caesar!” of course).
That Wayne Knight cameos as one of the nervous, silent abductors tells you something about the Coens’ idea of fan service (I loved it), and the number of communists behind the kidnapping, plus their reasons for it, tells you a bit about how the Brothers Coen regard the political left.
The commies sound like a gaggle of ivory tower loons (one keeps yelling, “The body politic!” off-screen, as a running joke); in a richly self-aware Clooney performance, Whitlock forgets his predicament and laps all the Marxism up.
One of the more subtle and clever ironies in the film is the distinction between Hollywood and “the real world,” with the former being a fantasy land run by crazies and the latter a nation of mellow, everyday citizens overhung by Cold War menace.
Yet another commitment weighing on Eddie Mannix is whether to accept a lucrative 9-to-5 from Lockheed Corporation, the aerospace company. Sitting for a power lunch at a Chinese restaurant, Mannix is taken aback when a Lockheed suit flashes a picture of an H-bomb test at Bikini Atoll, as a sign the company is collaborating with the U.S. government on big things. He assures Mannix a lot of money and comfort, but even on his worst days Mannix can sleep easy knowing Capitol Pictures has nothing to do with weapons of nuclear annihilation.
As in any Coen brothers movie, God, or the question of God, pops up to stress out our mortal characters even more. Capitol’s “Hail, Caesar!” picture features scenes with Jesus on the cross, and the actor playing him is never seen — in a stand-out exchange, the AD even presses him whether he qualifies for a billed actor or an extra’s lunch.
For advice on how said Jesus should be depicted, Mannix convenes a roundtable where he consults a Catholic priest, Protestant minister, Greek Orthodox bishop and Jewish rabbi, which descends into expected squabble. Neither the religious leaders nor the Coens can settle on a faithful image of Jesus, so when Mannix screens a rough cut of his movie the Christ scenes are replaced by black leader with the provocative caption, “DIVINE PRESENCE TO BE SHOT.”
At best that gag elicits a “ha” or just a smirk, and for the most part Hail, Caesar! operates on a cerebral level, as a theoretical comedy rather than a laugh riot. The exceptions deserve mention: Clooney mugging at the camera, Channing Tatum dressed as a sailor in a homoerotic dance routine, and Frances McDormand as a manic film editor whose scarf nearly kills her. Also, at a pivotal, surreal moment, a little dog appears out of nowhere, foils a communist plot and amends the Coens’ animal cruelty in the past (see: Inside Llewyn Davis, True Grit).
In the main, however, this film lugs around a lot of dead space, packing in so many ideas that the relational aspects between characters appear a lower priority than usual for the filmmakers.
Mannix’s actions by the end, against Baird Whitlock, codify this story as an allegory about Gods amongst men, puppeteering the thoughtless movie stars who are said to inspire and “move” the masses. The Coens’ vision rots of pessimism, with no ideological recourse (i.e. the ludicrous communists), valued religion or human warmth to turn to.
Yet their film’s ambition, as manifest in a variety show-like array of locations and genres, supplies a mournful power at its best, not to mention a novel tribute to and interpretation of Hollywood’s golden era. Idea, form and, yes, emotion unite in the funny-sad-hopeful scene where young buck Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich, remember that name) attends the premiere of his latest western in a packed movie palace.
Like Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo, Hobie has a scene where he strums a guitar on a porch and sings a heartfelt tune, “Lazy Ol’ Moon,” named after his new movie. The focus seems to be on Hobie singing, but the audience can’t stop laughing at the clumsy old drunk also in the scene, who is shaking his fist at the moon before tripping into a water trough. He repeats this slapstick multiple times, and by the third or fourth time the moviegoers are rolling in the aisles.
At first, Hobie looks stricken, humiliated by the disrespect for his screen performance. But he soon rolls with it and has what looks like, beside his movie star date, a sincerely good time. Suddenly a body in a seat once more, he laughs a sigh of relief.