Whatever else the Coen Brothers may be—a somewhat cagey, idiosyncratic pair; independent filmmakers with a broad body of work; even Oscar winners—they are pastiche artists and genre revisionists first and foremost. Blood Simple, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn’t There are neo-noirs; Miller’s Crossing is a gangster film; the oft-forgotten Intolerable Cruelty has roots in the screwball; and The Ladykillers and True Grit, a western, are both remakes. But in each case, the Coens own sensibility, at its best, makes these films fundamentally *not* these things. The intrusion of aliens into The Man Who Wasn’t There, the western elements of The Big Lebowski and No Country For Old Men, and the endearing, matriarchal domesticity of Fargo‘s Marge and Norm create departures from genre that disrupt simple classification. In this regard, the genre itself is both critiqued and outright mocked even as the film pays loving homage to it. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as they say.
All of this is to say that Hail, Caesar!, the latest Coen Brothers film, is their filmography boiled down to its essence. It explicates the role of Hollywood in the pair’s work, and in so doing, reveals a striking ambivalence about that industry, finding magic in its products but malice in its motives. The somewhat loose story of Hail, Caesar! is set in 1951 and concerns Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a real-life figure—or at least a character named after one—whose job is/was to keep movie stars’ scandals out of the press.
The film begins on a day when the eponymous film-within-the-film is finishing production, at which points its star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by a group of communist former-scriptwriters who want their due. As this unfolds, a handful of other films are also being made, including a drama with a western star (Alden Ehrenreich) who can barely walk in a tuxedo, much less give a convincing line reading; a fantasy picture starring Scarlett Johansson that is clearly inspired by Million Dollar Mermaid; and a musical entitled “No Dames!” featuring a tap-dancing Channing Tatum doing routines lifted from a pair of Gene Kelly films. Johansson’s character, meanwhile, is pregnant out of wedlock, and Mannix is cooking up a story that will have her hide the pregnancy and “adopt” the baby to maintain her clean image, as happened in real life Loretta Young.
None of this appears to be of particular importance. The films within the film are one-scene gags, the Clooney plotline is as devoid of drama as it is absurd, and the Coens hang a lampshade on the child adoption idea and then plunge headfirst into it. Rather than insisting on narrative, the film moves along from one joke to the next, presenting period detail and studio-era recreations in dazzling color, light and costumes (courtesy frequent collaborators Roger Deakins and Mary Zophres, respectively). Watching sailors sing about the absence of women from their lives on the eve of setting sail is positively delightful; shots from the film’s “Hail, Caesar!” are a Technicolor marvel; Alden Ehrenreich fumbling on-set is fine Coens comedy. The cinephile’s treasures abound
As is often the case with the Coens, there is gravity to this weightlessness. Almost always inherent to genre revisionism is a love of genre and film itself—Taxi Driver and Chinatown don’t hit as hard if familiarity with noir isn’t there to (mis)lead the viewer, and The Wild Bunch and Soldier Blue could not exist if Classical Hollywood hadn’t churned out hundreds of westerns in the preceding decades. In Coen films, like in the first generation of post-Golden Age genre films, the classical past is an under-the-surface, de facto rule of existence and, in some regards and to varying extents, a guarantor of effect. Hail, Caesar! allows that subtext to bubble up and play out on the surface.
The wide range of genres manifest in the films within Hail, Caesar! are in this regard a stand-in not only for old Hollywood, lovingly framed and affectionately dwelled upon, but for the Coens’ work itself, their ongoing project of pastiche. But underneath this love is an awareness of the values inherent in these films and of the capitalistic machine that churns them out to indoctrinate or anesthetize their audience.
Just as New Hollywood directors and their successors, aware of the often racist, sexist, or idealistic messages of genre films, flipped these latent messages on their head, so do Hail, Caesar!’s blacklisted screenwriters-turned-kidnappers, who give a speech denouncing the ideals inherent in the capitalist Hollywood system. In this regard, the film’s closest analogue for the Coens are in some ways its villains. Whitlock gets an earful and more for parroting back the communist viewpoint to Mannix, but that isn’t to say such ideas are dismissed. When it’s time to give the rousing, Oscar-sealing speech—and what better indicates status quo values than the Oscars the Coens recently dismissed as “not very important”?—in the name of the Good Lord, the moment goes from convincing to unsuccessful when Whitlock forgets the word “faith.” The entire thing is revealed to be a calculated message. The moment recalls an early scene in the film, when Mannix tells a room full of priests and rabbis that it’s really the movies people attain their values from. The Coens may leave it to the film’s “villains” to criticize that idea, but their filmography shows agreement—and Whitlock, awakened to this reality, can’t quite sell viewers on faith, in Jesus or Hollywood.
In this sense, Hail, Caesar! is the Coen Brothers distilled, a mission statement whose explicit text underpins most of their filmography. But where the directors previously seemed content to hide behind the system they criticized, Hail, Caesar! has the pair shedding their reticence, taking the viewer behind the scenes of this dream factory. There we learn that the stars are shams and even the executives are skeptical. Mannix spends much of the film trying to regain his religious faith and considers leaving Hollywood for aviation. Similarly, his response to Whitlock’s communist conversion suggests duty rather than disagreement. The film’s blacklisted writers are the nagging reminder of the repeated shortcomings of Hollywood’s values. Like Whitlock, the Coens agree; but like Mannix, they can’t abandon the movies they love so much. As such, they have made it their job to remedy what has come before, reminding us that they mock not reality or their characters, as critics so often argue, but the false ideas of the classical past masquerading as truth.