Saturday, February 20, 2016

Ethan Coen and Joel Coen | Hail, Caesar!

take two on faith!
by Douglas Messerli

Ethan Coen and Joel Coen (screenplay and directors) Hail, Caesar! / 2016

Who’d a thunk that the Coen Brothers, after all their often cynical satires of anything sacred, would have written and directed not only a valentine to Hollywood (a far cry from their bitter vision of the industry in Barton Fink), but would center a work on faith? I suppose one might try to categorize their dark comedy based on the Biblical tale of Job, A Serious Man, as being a work about belief; but the God of that world is so mean that it would be hard to see it as a fair-minded discussion of the issue.

Their newest film, Hail, Ceasar! in fact begins and ends in a church with the central figure, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin)—a man who keeps studio productions on track while working to keep his actors out of trouble—visiting the confession box. Despite the daily dirty dealings in which, as “a fixer,” he must become involved, Mannix is himself a good family man, and at his almost daily confessions details his major sins as lying to his wife about his cigarette habit. This sinner, we quickly realize, is a true believer.
      Meanwhile, the studio is shooting an epic film in the mode of Ben Hur, Spartacus, and The Robe in which a Roman warrior meets up with Christ and, at the crucifixion, is converted to Christianity. Mannix even attempts to bring together church leaders—Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox priests, a protestant minister and a rabbi—to make certain that the studio’s representation of Christ will offend no one. The panel has no problem with the scriptwriter’s presentation of Christ, but has all sorts of ancillary issues about their varying religious viewpoints. The chariot-race, so the Russian Orthodox priest opines, “is not believable.”
     Moreover, the entire film, while clearly satirizing the Los Angeles industry, does so in a quite delightful way, by dishing out lovely tributes to Esther Williams, the musical-dancing films of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Donald O’Connor, the sophisticated dramas/comedies of Alfred Hitchcock, Anatole Litvak, Michael Curtiz, and Preston Sturges, and even the simple-minded cowboy yarns with figures such as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Kirby Grant.

     With actors George Clooney as the Roman soldier, Baird Whitlock, Scarlett Johansson as the aquatic mermaid DeeAnna Moran, Channing Tatum as the charming sailor dancer, Burt Gurney, and the loveable newcomer Alden Ehrenreich as the cowboy and now a sudden dramatic/romantic lead, Hobie Doyle, the Coens’ absolutely charm us even while they make fun of the various film genres.
      Of course, we expect the inflated and wooden speeches of the Roman-Christian spectacular; accept the fact that the beautiful mermaid is a course-speaking woman who has suddenly discovered that she is pregnant with no husband in sight;  joyously laugh at the dancers whose nostalgic routine reveals these sailors might actually prefer a world “without dames” (praise be to choreographer Christopher  Gattelli); and grant that the cowboy—great horseman, lasso artist, and delightful singer he is—has little in the way of brains! They are all quite loveable, including the Carmen Miranda-like Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio)—a name which, obviously, references Hitchcock’s Vertigo—who has an absolutely mirthful dinner with the cowboy-hero, who even lassos up his spaghetti in a kind of strange reference, presumably, to Spaghetti Westerns.

      Even the villains and fools of this work, the gossip columnist sisters, Thora Thacker and Thessaly Thacker (both played wonderfully by Tilda Swinton), the chain-smoking film-editor, C.C. Calhoun (Frances McDormand)—who moment by moment puts her life and the studio  products in danger by lighting up around the nitrate-infused cinema strips—and the hilarious coven of commie-loving writers (with winks to Dalton Trumbo, the philosopher Herbert Marcusse, and, once again, Clifford Odets)—who, in an attempt to right a wrongful system, drug and kidnap the Clooney figure, Whitlock, try to convert him to Communism and ransom him back to the studio—are all  marvelous in their representation of absolute belief, while we recognize that those beliefs lie on the darker side.
      Only the Tatum character, Gurney, reveals himself as a turncoat, a gay dancer who is determined to escape to Russia to express his Communist sympathies—and we surely know where that will end.

      The Coens prove, through film, that art is more real than “reality,” as the cowboy comes to the Roman warrior’s rescue, and production head Mannix dresses down the now confused Whitlock for his temporary admiration of Marx’s theory, slapping him back into the reality that—at least in this instant—we all share: films are better than everyday life. 
     Okay, while Whitlock finally sustains a moment of convincing acting, cinematically declaiming how he had come about Christ serving water up to the slaves, he forgets the last word, “faith!” But we know on the next take he will get it right. And the Coens, in their embrace of this fabulation, have convinced us—and maybe even themselves—once again that what they do is something of worth—even if, I also believe, this work is more a comic pastiche than a sustained narrative creation.

Los Angeles, February 20, 2016

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