By Alan Mattli
There’s something about trilogies. If one film is a monolith, and two films are a cash-in, then three films can be a commanding multi-volume presence, exuding an air of purpose and intent. To speak of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King does not convey the same degree of grandeur as referring to the trilogy in toto as The Lord of the Rings. Aki Kaurismäki, famously, classifies many of his films into groups of three in order to stop himself from becoming complacent (even though more than four years after Le Havre, audiences are still waiting for parts two and three of what would be the Finnish master’s third proclaimed trilogy).
The brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, too, deal in trilogies, both officially and implicitly. While they themselves have termed their sporadic collaborations with George Clooney their “Numbskull Trilogy” – which, after 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? and 2003’s underrated Intolerable Cruelty, now concludes with Hail, Caesar! –, it doesn’t take outrageous interpretative gymnastics to see series-like patterns in their filmography. One might be titled “Buried Treasure” (Fargo, O Brother, The Ladykillers), another could be termed “Out of Mediocrity” (Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Man Who Wasn’t There), and you could come with any number of combinations that involve the Coens’ rich œuvre of cross-genre crime capers, from Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Miller’s Crossing, via Fargo and The Big Lebowski, to No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading.
However, in this veritable jungle of interrelated themes and motifs, Hail, Caesar! suggests one of the most arresting Coen trilogies yet. We might call this one “Art and God”, and it includes, apart from the brothers’ latest offering, 2009’s A Serious Man and 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis. What makes this potential constellation so interesting is that it is Hail, Caesar!, by far the broadest and silliest of the three, which unifies the thematic concerns of the other two.
In terms of plot, there isn’t much overlap: A Serious Man revolves around a middle-aged Jewish professor and his private and professional struggles in 1960s Minnesota. Inside Llewyn Davis, set in New York at the tail end of the folk revival, fictionalises the memoir of singer Dave Van Ronk. Hail, Caesar!, meanwhile, takes place during that liminal period in Hollywood history when World War II was over and the horrors of McCarthyism and the HUAC were only just beginning – a time when the studio system was at its biggest and flashiest whilst legal changes as well as the creeping advent of television were chipping away at its foundations.
It is against this backdrop, circa 1951, that we meet Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin in delightful Inherent Vice-like straight-man mode), head of production at Capitol Pictures and the studio’s designated fixer, whose job it is to keep the company’s numerous stars out of trouble. One fateful day, a Communist group of screenwriters calling themselves “The Future” kidnaps the A-lister Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, once again striking an interesting balance between foolish and unwittingly erudite), which causes production on Capitol’s prestige project, the Christian-themed Roman epic Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ starring Whitlock, to grind to a halt.
Like many Coen comedies, this one, too, is quite episodic, being essentially a procedural of just another day in Mannix’s career, with the writer-directors allowing themselves plenty of detours through late Golden Age Hollywood. While looking for Whitlock, Mannix has to resolve issues surrounding the pregnancy of the Esther Williams-type swim revue star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), a European drama director (Ralph Fiennes) struggling with the lacking acting talent of the singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (a wonderful Alden Ehrenreich), the prying gossip columnist twins and Hedda Hopper/Louella Parsons stand-ins Thora and Thessaly Thacker (the pitch-perfect Tilda Swinton), and, during the film’s funniest scene, the overworked exec is compelled to hold a meeting with representatives of Judeo-Christian faiths over the religious imagery used in Hail, Caesar!.
Thanks to solid, occassionally brilliant writing and a very game cast, all these facets make for a highly entertaining movie, espcially to lovers of mid-century Hollywood, which, contrary to popular belief and in spite of the era’s undeniable classics, produced its fair share of formulaic subpar pap, which is paid homage to here. The Coens are obviously well-versed in the period’s cinematic language, as they nimbly imitate and parody the style of the time both in their own story and in their depiction of fictional Capitol productions. The po-faced self-importance of high society dramas, the pompous grandeur of epics, the unwavering smiles of revue and musical actors like DeeAnna Moran and Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), an ersatz-Gene Kelly, the goody two shoes western hero – the film lovingly skewers all the main tokens of classic Hollywood; even the pathos of film noir, which, although lacking an in-universe incarnation, is present by way of the main kidnapping plot, fittingly narrated by a wonderfully hyperbolic Michael Gambon.
It would be easy to dismiss Hail, Caesar! as pure fun and games, a move back to lighter fare for the Coens, who, in the eight years that have passed since their last outright comedy (the notably dark Burn After Reading), are coming off a string of rather serious directing (A Serious Man, True Grit, Inside Llewyn Davis) and writing (Unbroken, Bridge of Spies) efforts. But, as the duo has shown time and again, there is almost always a sharp point to their tomfoolery.
Let’s return to the trilogy thesis: what do A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Hail, Caesar! have in common? As has been mentioned before, the connection is not immediately obvious. The tale of the hapless Minnesota Jew, in essence a reworking of the biblical story of Job, concerns questions of faith and theodicy: why is there suffering in the world? What’s the meaning of life and death? Where can we find God in all this? And if He does not intervene in worldly affairs, is it not irrelevant if He exists or not? Four years later, Inside Llewyn Davis shifted the discussion onto humanity’s relationship with art: is there inherent value in art, or is artistic expression just a business like any other, just a bit more subtle than others in its quest for money?
Both dilemmas crop up in Hail, Caesar!. For one, the film’s “religious” overtones are hard to miss; from the Christian message of the film-within-the-film to Mannix’s devotion to going to confession every 20 hours or so. But it doesn’t stop there: after all, what is religion if not one of many possible paths in the human pursuit of meaning and understanding? Enter “The Future”, the Malibu-based Communist cell, whose members, after initially contenting themselves with working socialist messages into their scripts, have been radicalised by philosopher Herbert Marcuse (John Bluthal). They, like the men of faith convening in Mannix’s boardroom, are looking for meaning in an ideological promise of salvation, replacing God or Jesus Christ with Marx and Engels yet still coming up short – a fact that is brilliantly driven home during a montage, in which two Communists are shown completing a puzzle, only to find that the one remaining piece does not fit the last gap.
By way of religion – whose failure to provide anything of note in the quest for meaning is liberally mocked by the Coens, in appropriately filmic terms (“divine presence to be shot”) – and Communism, the Coens swiftly arrrive at (cinematic) art and the niggling question about its worth that already plagued Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn Davis. In a place like Hollywood, where art is shamelessly mass-produced, can there be such a thing as artistic integrity and actual human value? And is the entertainment of the masses a noble end that justifies the anonymously industrial means?
But even though the film doesn’t seem to be particularly keen on contradicting Marxist doctrine on the matter – a position that is laid out in unexpected eloquence by Baird Whitlock, shortly before giving an impassioned speech in praise of humanistic Christian values on a sound stage standing in for Calvary –, it seems reluctant to whole-heartedly embrace the view that Hollywood is an unequivocally deplorable capitalist moloch that stifles the masses’ socialist sentiments with endlessly recycled stories and cheap thrills. If anything, Hail, Caesar! suggests that Hollywood’s powers that be either lack the intellectual capacity or the inclination to even think about their place in the socio-economic system. The dictatorship, if it can be called one, is thus not a malevolent but a happily ignorant one – as oblivious to its role in the class struggle as it is to the impending downfall of the studio system.
Art, then, is presented as a flawed, manipulated and manipulative, but ultimately strangely sincere way of dealing with the unattainability of meaning and the inadequacy of ideology in providing concrete answers. It gives expression to humanity’s imperfections, while ideologies seem to be waging constant wars against rivalling systems of belief over their own dubious claims to universal truth; Communism vs. Capitalism, Protestantism vs. Catholicism vs. Orthodoxy vs. Judaism.
Considering this, it is by no means surprising that the Communist subplot in Hail, Caesar! culminates in a cheekily anticlimactic, wittily literal deus ex machina featuring an all but invisible Dolph Lundgren standing atop a Soviet submarine: for once, the machine God rises from below. Coupled with Whitlock’s final two speeches, it can be deduced that the Coens do not see any profound differences between Communist and Judeo-Christian ideology. But as we see Baird fumbling his final lines, we realise that ideology is theoretical, finite, and deeply imperfect. In art, at least, there’s a second take.
For more reviews (in German), visit www.FacingTheBitterTruth.com.