Serving the Picture: The Coen Brothers' Hail, Caesar!
As has been said many times and in many outlets, the Coen Brothers can do it all. You want award-winning drama? No problem, No Country For Old Men and True Grit have you covered. Not in the mood? Fine, have some of the best comedies of a generation in Fargo and Raising Arizona. All of this is to say that Hail, Caesar is a movie that should not work, at least with normal directors and writers. There are so many storylines and balls in the air that with others at the helm, at least one of them would have been dropped. But, as mentioned, we are not discussing just any creators, the Coens stand out from the crowd, and for good reason.
Although Hail, Caesar is a self-contained narrative, it can also be looked at another way. It is essentially a 1950s era Hollywood anthology film. This structure, anchored by our “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), enables the film to travel from set to set, showcasing the different kinds of movies that the studio system of that time had to offer. Honestly, this is where being the Coens comes in handy. The star-studded cast lights up the screen in every sequence and the always brilliant director of photography Roger Deakins is allowed to play in the sandbox of that studio system. In lesser hands this could become monotonous, but Deakins being Deakins, every “film” looks just different enough to remind us that we are on numerous sets, each with its own particular aesthetic. The religious epic stands out from the musical number, which in turn stands out from the western. He may not have garnered any nominations for Hail, Caesar, but in some ways, it is his most subtle and impressive work.
But let’s talk about that cast for a moment. Hail, Caesar reunites the Coens with George Clooney, playing movie star Baird Whitlock, with fantastic results. He has starred in numerous Coens’s films, including O, Brother, Where Art Thou and Burn After Reading. They seem to revel in knocking Clooney’s matinee idol image down a few pegs, and take joy in having him play the idiot. This playing-against-type always takes the viewer by surprise and makes for the enjoyable experience of mocking a movie star. I mean, who hasn’t dreamed of slapping around a leading man like Clooney? Eddie Mannix gets that chance and we get to watch! The Coens always seem to take advantage of what we, as the audience, bring into the film. But instead of playing into those expectations, they turn them on their head and get a performance from Clooney that few other directors can garner. There is not really a sour note in this cast, whether it’s the studio’s “It Girl”, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), dual gossip rag columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton) or young actor Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) who’s in over his head (or is he?). Given that amount of star power, you might think that one of them would steal the show.
Shockingly, after the film’s release, all that the audience seemed to talk about was the Western actor who Mannix attempts to move into a starring role in a very different kind of film. Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) absolutely shines as the ultimate fish out of water. His “would that it ‘twere so simple” scene with director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) may go down in history as one of the Coens’s funniest scenes. Ehrenreich’s good nature amid Fiennes’ barely contained rage and frustration makes for fantastic give and take, and chemistry, between the two. This is hammered home later when both separately discuss the progress of the film with Mannix and have quite different interpretations of their interactions. This dichotomy between the two gives Mannix both sides of Hollywood: the bright eyed naive actor and the grumpy, experienced director who has struggled one too many times. This becomes an important plot point as it pertains to the decision Mannix must make by the end of the film.
And this is the thread that ties all of these vignettes together. Mannix must choose between an easy life and a pay raise with Lockheed, or continuing to be a fixer. By the end of the film, Lockheed has given him the ultimate hard sell, a ten-year contract, after which he could retire to a quiet life with his wife. And throughout the runtime, we have seen that being a fixer is no easy task, instead, it is one headache after another, putting out whatever fire happens to have exploded in the last five minutes. Despite that struggle, Hail, Caesar is the Coens’ love letter not only to old Hollywood and the studio system, but also to movie-making in general. When Mannix’s decision has been made, it never needs to be spoken. Brolin’s sense of ease as he solves all of the problems of each story in this anthology is palpable and calming as we know he made the right decision. After all, “you have worth if you serve the picture,” whether you are the director, the writer, the scriptgirl, or the star.