Monday, February 15, 2016
Coen Bros. Watch: Hail, Caesar! (2016)
As I said to Jamie when we left the movie "Normally I get annoyed when it's clear the filmmakers expect you to watch the movie more than once to 'get it'." It's a ridiculous value proposition. And I am not talking about returning to a mystery movie once you've seen how it all plays out so you can see the pieces working together before the big reveal. I'm referring to a brand of filmmaking that works extra hard to show how damn smart they are that they forget to tell a compelling story and instead leave a breadcrumb trail for a message that, ultimately, you wonder why they felt they needed to make it so complex you needed a Lil' Oprhan Annie Decoder Ring to decipher it, and it still wound up being "Drink your Ovaltine."
But complexity in messaging has always been the case with the Coen Bros., going especially back to Barton Fink and playing out in even some of their most commercially viable films. There's always a Mike Yanagita scene, a curve ball leaving you with more questions than answers or at least begging to make you look deeper, and, if you sort it out, it unlocks the picture. After all, the Coen Bros. do not make mistakes. They do not do extraneous. That scene is saying something.
Now, I have my ideas about what the final scene means in Barton Fink, but I would always, always be willing to hear someone else explain it to me, because as much as I like that movie and like what it has to say about the assumptions and pretensions of the creative person, I can't quite nail that last scene on the beach. I have my ideas, but I am willing to be convinced otherwise.
Sometimes I have a lot of patience for what the Coen Bros. are up to (Inside Llewyn Davis), and sometimes I don't (The Man Who Wasn't There). And, frankly, while I enjoyed The Big Lebowski's screwball atmosphere the first time I saw it, it was the second time I watched it that the pieces fell in place and I felt like I actually "got it". Which, of course, makes me want to re-watch The Man Who Wasn't There despite the fact I can't really seem to find it. Maybe I forgive them because it doesn't feel so much like pretension as a solid movie they're putting out there, one where they offer everything up, and you can try to keep up. And it's okay to have that nagging feeling that maybe you just saw something that you didn't entirely get on the first round. With them, I really don't mind giving it another shot.
Hail, Caesar! (2016) was marketed as a sort of slapsticky comedy, something the Coens certainly did back in the Raising Arizona days and which they embraced mightily in The Hudsucker Proxy (a movie I will defend with punches, if necessary), riffing on post WWII-era Hollywood and the innate charm, goofiness and endless scandal that were part of the era.
But this is not that movie.
It's a movie of many, many things - not the least was a bonanza of opportunity for the Coens to recreate the kind of movie-making that has so obviously impacted them from the pre-1960's, but also to explore that world in a sort of kaleidoscope approach, mixing fantasy, references and reality. And it is funny, in its way, but it's not people with funny, clippy voices because people in 2016 find old-timey voices funny. And, I expect, the overall themes of the film don't necessarily lend themselves to comedy so much as a satirical eye. Although, there are laugh out loud moments (which my fellow audience members didn't seem to understand).
Goonies alumnus Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, upper-middle-management at the imaginary Capitol Studios. His job is - as many of us in the middle of things do - to fix the problems, and the problems are 95% caused by the tweakiness of the actors and the folks who work around the movies. More than anything, Eddie's job is to make sure the world keeps turning, taking direction from the studio honcho.
The big, prestige picture being worked on is "Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ", the sort of big, Hollywood cast-of-thousands Biblical epic that got us Ben-Hur. The story is of a Roman general (played by Baird Whitlock who is played by George Clooney), who learns of Jesus and his mercy. Baird is kidnapped by a group of people calling themselves "The Future", who ask for $100,000 in studio money.
This, however, is just one of the many crises Mannix is dealing with. His Esther Williams analog (ScarJo) is pregnant, the studio honcho wants his cowboy hero to transition to leading-man status in prestige, drawing room pictures. Meanwhile, he's got an offer on the table from Lockheed for a whole lot of money and security.
On its face, it's a quirky comedy with Hollywood stories littered around as flavoring. If you know about Loretta Young's adopted child, or that there was a very real Eddie Mannix who was not the straight-laced guy of the movie, but a sort of mob-type who ran his affairs with an iron fist. In that, it's kind of an odd choice for the Coen's to co-opt the name - but he did spend his time making arrests evaporate and keeping names out of tabloids when actors behaved badly.
The Coens recreate Hollywood with good enough precision that for the general public or someone not terribly familiar with specifics can buy into it. I'm sure the real film history buffs will quibble endlessly with detail. But it's fun to see water-ballet numbers, Kelly/Astaire type numbers, Douglas Sirk stand-ins, all that stuff. And the Cheston stand in that is Baird Whitlock trying to get his head around Marxism.
But, again, a Coen bros. movie is there to be unlocked, and it didn't pass my attention that the name of the film within the film was "Hail Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ", and our hero is here to save the actors from themselves. He's tempted away from the studio with the promise of riches, just at the cost of helping to accelerate nuclear annihilation. He prays constantly, he has his moment of doubt on the set of the crucifixion. He promises truth to the masses, and is the conscience worrying, unsleeping, saving the players in their fantasy world where he can. He takes his orders from an unseen voice with authority he cannot deny. A voice which seemingly maneuvers a Dudley Do-Right of an actor into the right place at the right time. There's a plan here.
Mannix stands between art and commerce, aware of the value of what his studio produces. Like the gentleman keeping the wheel turning in the Hudsucker clock, he's got a mission.
Spoilers, I guess
The movie brings in the seeming Communists, The Future, Hollywood writers who really just want a paycheck bigger than what they're getting, making all the usual arguments of control of means of production, etc... and one wonders, as the money slips through their grasp, if the purity of their creative freedom, divinely inspired, and rowing in a boat on un-calm waters as their supposed savior leaps away from them, if they should have rendered unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and look for their reward elsewhere. The disciples throw away their money, and the prancing actor disappears with his dog. They don't even have Engels.
But even as Clooney gives the final speech in character as Baird Whitlock as the Roman General, it raises the question of what Jesus was preaching and treating all equally, with kindness and love in his heart. And it's no mistake that Whitlock stumbles on the word "faith".
All of this seems set by the early sequence of four religious figures meeting with Eddie and discussing whether or not the movie is acceptable, is offensive, etc... And, as the Coens are always openly Jewish (see: A Serious Man. No. Really. See it.), it's worth noting the blase attitude about the movie within the movie provided by the rabbi perhaps speaking for the Coens.
I don't know if my reading of this movie is right. I have no idea. I still kind of think Frozen is about sticking with your sibling when they come out of the closet, so, you know, take my interpretation with a grain of salt.
But I am glad to see a movie that was at least trying. And was, in the end, actually pretty funny.
I think this one will find its audience, just maybe not during the theatrical run of the film.