Fans of the Coen brothers have come to expect two kinds of releases from the movies’ most irascible duo, as distinct as the musicals, westerns, and prestige pictures that dominated the old Hollywood studio system. There are the major Coens films, like Barton Fink, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men; boundary-pushing, serious-minded efforts that have made them one of the most respected forces in filmmaking. On the other side are minor efforts, like The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, and Burn After Reading: typically silly comedies that refer back to the screwballs of the 1930’s by filmmakers like Leo McCarey, Howard Hawks, and Preston Sturges.
It’s important to note that major and minor aren’t really indicators of quality. Minor efforts like The Big Lebowski can be much more beloved than major efforts like The Man Who Wasn’t There. The distinction is more about intent. The minor films can be experimental, the major patently ridiculous. It’s likely the filmmakers would say they don’t see a difference. However, a quick look at their output makes it hard to deny a wild shift in tone and purpose from Blood Simple to Raising Arizona, Fargo to Lebowski, No Country to Burn After Reading.
I mention this because the Coens’ latest, Hail Caesar!, looks and feels like a minor work, but with the unconventional narrative and deep thematic interests of a major. It makes for a conflicted viewing experience, and is also responsible for the wild divergence between critical approval (a certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and audience response (a scalding C- Cinemascore) A star-studded sendup of the 1950’s golden age in Hollywood, Caesar is the zaniest, goofiest film the Coens have made since The Ladykillers. However, it’s also a dense treatise on religion, industry, and the role of entertainment in society. The disconnect is jarring, even for a lifelong fan who considers the Coens the best of all living filmmakers.
Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a studio “fixer” responsible for maintaining the public image and day-to-day operations of Capitol Pictures, a large Hollywood studio modeled after Paramount or Warner Brothers in their heyday. This involves tasks like “changing the image” of Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) so he can star in a major awards film, finding a husband for the studio’s innocent ingénue DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johannson) so her pregnancy doesn’t cause a scandal, and figuring out who kidnapped the studio’s biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), off the set of his Biblical epic Hail Caesar!
That doesn’t even begin to describe how complicated the plot is. Mannix is also being courted by a major technology firm for a job that would allow him to spend more time with his wife (Allison Pill) and children. He has to avoid two separate reporters (both played by Tilda Swinton) with leads on major studio scandals. He has to negotiate a fake adoption through a studio lackey (Jonah Hill), a ransom with communists (Wayne Knight and Tim Blake Nelson, among others), an arranged romance, the demands of numerous other directors and stars (Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum, and Dolph Lundgren among others), and even meet with church leaders to make sure Hail Caesar! won’t offend any “reasonable people.”
Also in full force is the Coens’ love of inside jokes. Fans will remember that Capitol Pictures was the studio that hired Barton Fink. They may also relish the presence of a grumpy rabbi at the meeting of protestant ministers who, when one pastor claims, “God was angry,” disdainfully counters, “What, He got over it?” There’s a stage hand arguing with the actor playing Jesus about whether he’s a “principal or an extra,” and there’s even a running joke about how Judaism doesn’t allow any, “visual depictions of the Godhead.” The entirety of Hail Caesar! (the film within the film) seems to be written in King James English, with lines like, “My ardor is yet as warm as the embers of this—“ [Note: I tried figuring out what the last word in this sentence was, but it was unclear. Later in the film, someone else repeated the line but also coughed when they said the last word. Not every joke in a Coen brothers movie is necessarily meant to be noticed, or told for the benefit of the audience]
What holds it all together is the Coens’ deep passion for symmetry. At some point characters have long discussions about filmmaking, communism, and religion, and they all say exactly the same things. During the final scene of Hail Caesar! Whitlock says of Jesus, “He saw no Roman. He saw no slave. He saw only men; weak men,” which reminds us of the way the communists claim they’ve been working their own propaganda into screenplays. And when the communists’ get the ransom money, after hours of talking about how the workers deserve the money instead of those who “control the means of production,” they all decide, “the money should go to the cause, not to the servants of the cause.”
It all builds to an enigmatic conclusion that had everyone in my audience, myself included, scratching their heads. As it turns out, there isn’t really a good option for Mannix, or for any of the characters in the film. Mannix never sees his kids now, and his job seems, like the communists claim, to involve “maintaining the status quo.” However his other job, despite better hours and pay, boasts of their involvement in testing the H-bomb. That’s not an ideal environment either.
I think it all comes back to the humane pessimism that has defined past Coen films like A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis. Those characters meant well, worked hard, pursued aims our society celebrates, and yet they still failed. It almost feels nihilistic. Many have brought that very criticism against the brothers throughout their career. However, if it is nihilism, it comes from a place of deep authenticity. The Coens are among the only filmmakers who reject the notion that hard work and good intentions automatically bring success; that there’s always an ideal answer to every problem. Because alternatively, that means every luckless failure in society is somehow responsible for their own suffering, an ideology that is more prevalent (and damaging) in America than anywhere else.
And with Hail Caesar! the Coens expand that thesis to show how Hollywood, like a religion or political movement, perpetuates these ideas and prevents the world from changing. “People don’t want the facts. They want to believe,” Mannix says at one point. And that’s probably why Hail Caesar!, despite its all-star cast and hilarious fake movie sequences (Channing Tatum’s closeted “No More Dames” dance number ranks right up there with “Dear Mr. Kennedy” among the best Coen songs ever), probably will continue to make people scratch their heads. It’s a movie about stars, cowboys, mermaids, Romans, idealists, dreamers, and the son of God himself, but nothing that amounts to a happy ending. It’s not something we’re trained to expect from Hollywood, and that’s exactly the point.
Photos Courtesy of: Universal Pictures