That’s the official poster. Boring. I like this one much better.
In comparison to Inside Llewyn Davis, Hail, Caesar! has an outlook on humanity that is damn near sunny. Inside Llewyn Davis’ was a well-observed portrayal of the coffee-house folk-music scene pre-Dylan, suffused with an existential bleak mood. (I loved it.)
Hail, Caesar! is not exactly a “well-observed portrayal” of Hollywood post-WWII (a mix of the 40s and 50s). It’s not a documentary, although real people – or versions of them – predominate. It’s not a straight satire or a spoof either. It’s a bizarre mix of heart, corniness, and satire. It covers a lot of things familiar to people who know the history of Hollywood: how the big studios operated, including their patriarchal control over their stable of stars. The power of gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, fearsome women wearing gigantic hats who made studio heads tremble. The screenwriters who went to Community Party meetings which then would come back and bite them in the ass during the Blacklist years. (In the Coens’ re-imagining of that dark era, those people made up a true Communist cell, taking their orders from the Soviets, sneaking Commie propaganda into Hollywood movies.) The kinds of movies made by certain studios, mass-entertainment, musicals and Biblical epics. Movies “we” may be ashamed of now (speaking generally), but which were the bread-and-butter of a different era.
But Hail, Caesar! does not approach its environment with cynicism. It’s not slick. It also doesn’t treat Hollywood with contempt, nor is it mean-spirited about an industry devoted to make-believe. It has an almost gentle view of all of the characters, one of the biggest surprises about it, as ridiculous as many of them are. Hollywood is made up of hard-working people who have weird useless gifts (lassoing, horse riding, swimming, dancing with bananas on your head) that have brought them an immense amount of luck and good fortune. There isn’t one Diva actor on the lot in the film. I appreciated that so much. In my experience working in theatre, Divas are rare. Divas stand out in your memory. For the most part, actors are hard workers, humble (they really want to please the director and do a good job, even the stars feel that way), and, yeah, somewhat silly, because who would have ever thought that an ability to twirl two guns into your two-sided holster could make you Box Office Gold? It’s insane, it’s play-acting, and actors feel very very fortunate if they get to the point where they can make a living at it at all. People who see actors as egotistical idiotic maniacs probably don’t know many of them personally. The Divas get all the press. The nose-to-the-grindstone people do their work and go home.
I’ve read that some people don’t find the film “laugh out loud funny,” but I laughed out loud throughout. Your mileage may vary.
George Clooney plays Baird Whitlock, a dim-witted good-hearted alcoholic/womanizer movie star who spends the entire movie in Roman dress with a Caesar haircut. As strange as this might be to believe, he barely looks attractive at times. It’s hilarious. At one point, Josh Brolin (who plays Eddie Mannix, head of production at the fictional Capitol Pictures – based on the real-life Eddie Mannix – sort of) slaps Clooney across the face multiple times (there are a couple of 1940s movie-slaps in the film), and in between one of the slaps, Clooney stares up at Brolin in such horror and surprise that his mouth is open in a perfect circle, eyes bugged out of his head. I guffawed.
Scarlett Johansson plays DeeAnna Moran, an “aquatic” star along the lines of Esther Williams, but with throwbacks to the 1930s Busby Berkeley years, with grandiose synchronized swimming numbers, filmed from the ceiling, so human figures in the water start to look kaleidoscopic and abstract, creating different illusions.
Johansson’s voice in Hail, Caesar! is a brassy sassy New York accent (perfection), reminiscent of Jean Harlow’s voice: the tough-girl, the working-class New York girl, nobody’s fool, a gun moll voice. The first time you see DeeAnna Moran, she rises from the surface of the pool, engulfed in a spout of water from a pretend-whale beneath the waves. Dressed in a skintight green mermaid outfit, she does a high-dive into the center of the synchronized swimmers, and then, once the cameras stop rolling, swims off, her tail flapping in the waves, annoyed because the damn thing is too tight. “Did you have gas again?” asks an assistant on set, and she scoffs, “Did I have gas again … come on.” Turns out DeeAnna Moran is pregnant, doesn’t know who the father is, although she thinks she might be sure, and Eddie Mannix has come to propose a quickie-marriage to an appropriate gentleman, just to avoid the scandal.
Tilda Swinton plays twin-sister gossip-columnists named Thora Thacker / Thessaly Thacker, both based on Hedda Hopper. The hats Swinton wears, with deadly-looking feathers jutting off to the side, are not an exaggeration.
Thora (or Thessaly) stalk after Eddie Mannix across the Capitol lawns, threatening to reveal sketchy stories from Whitlock’s past if she doesn’t get an exclusive. The sisters are in ferocious competition with one another for scoops.
Ralph Fiennes plays a director named, hilariously, Laurence Laurentz (and nobody in the film can get the stresses right on either of his names). Laurentz is an elegant man with a British accent who seems to make drawing-room comedies along the lines of William Wyler or a low-rent George Cukor, with a palatial set of a parlor, and a fancy-schmancy family sitting around having cocktails.
Channing Tatum plays Burt Gurney, the song-and-dance man star of the lot, modeled mostly on Gene Kelly, who brought a man-of-the-people athleticism to his dancing, so different from the elegant Fred Astaire. Comparisons are odious. They were two very different dancers. Gene Kelly dressed in sailor’s middies, or the classic khakis/jeans rolled up and loafers. Very different from tux and tails.
Channing Tatum is not the dancer Gene Kelly was (who is?), but he’s charismatic, compelling, and yes, he can dance. Tap-dance, waltz, athletic leaps, fancy foot-work, the whole nine yards, he can do it. The first time we see Burt Gurney he is in a sort of On the Town type picture, shooting a frankly homoerotic number with a bunch of male soldiers in white sailors’ uniforms, bemoaning the fact (in song) that they have no dames. It ends with all of them dancing around with each other. I mean …
Burt Gurney is another humble star, eager to do his best. But Burt is more complex than meets the eye. Oh, Channing. How I love that I get to live in the moment where I get to watch this improbable and fearlessly-old-school entertaining career develop and take wing.
Josh Brolin, quickly becoming one of my favorite leading men/character actors (his performance in Inherent Vice is now a favorite), even though he’s been around forever, plays Eddie Mannix. Yes, he’s a tough-talking guy, strutting around keeping his artists in line. But he’s also so tormented by guilt he goes to confession once a day: Priest: “How long has it been since your last confession?” Eddie checks his watch. “18 hours, Father.” Tired sigh from the other side of the grille: “My son, that is too soon …” The touching part of this is that Eddie Mannix is not an overt sinner, no more than the rest of us. The biggest thing on his conscience is that he promised his wife he would quit smoking, and he snuck a few cigarettes and he feels genuinely bad about it. He is good at his job, but he is also being courted – heavily – by Lockheed, and Lockheed’s representative characterizes Eddie’s industry as silly, frivolous, a waste of time for such a talented man. If Eddie came to work for Lockheed, he would be set for life, in stock options, bonuses, salary, and he wouldn’t have to work until 11 o’clock at night. He wouldn’t miss his kid’s debut as shortstop on the baseball team. He wouldn’t think he was wasting his life in Make-Believe-Land. Mannix is torn. But he can’t stay torn for long, because he believes in the movies he’s making, he really does, and he also has to race around trying to find Baird Whitlock who has mysteriously disappeared from the set, calm down Laurence Laurentz, find a quickie husband for DeeAnna Moran, and a host of other problems that seem extremely urgent, absurd though they may be.
Brolin is extremely touching in this role. Very unexpected. Very well-written part.
And finally, because, for me, he is the big surprise of Hail, Caesar!, and one of the main reasons to see it (outside of the Coen Brothers, that is).
Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, the singing cowboy star, who came out of the rodeo racket because of his horse skills, and found himself a movie star. With a real “brand.” I’ve seen him characterized as some hokey-Okie, but that could not be farther from the truth. Yes, his accent is thick-as-tobacco-chew. Yes, he wears chaps, and barely ever sets foot in the studio because “his” movies are filmed out in the desert. Yes, he has a kind of wide-eyed openness that seems “innocent.” But watch closely. And watch what Ehrenreich does. Again, it’s a very well-written part. This isn’t an element that Ehrenreich has added on his own. It’s there to begin with, and he brings it out with such deep-down gut-level understanding of who Hobie is, and not only that but more importantly: what the role requires in order to tell the story the Coen Brothers want to tell. This is what team-playing actor-craft looks like. It also is an example of genius casting. Honestly, watching this relative newcomer you are seeing a Master at work. (Supernatural fans will probably not recognize him from “Wendigo,” he was one of the kids. Another Supernatural alum is wonderful character actor Robert Picardo who played the evil leprechaun in “Clap Your Hands” and plays the rabbi here, called in by Mannix with a bunch of other theologians to weigh in on the portrayal of Jesus in the upcoming Biblical epic. Ricardo provides one of the first laughs in the film, referencing the other religious guys at the table: “These guys are screwballs.”)
Alden Ehrenreich is so good he almost takes over the movie (and he’s not even featured in the poster!). His quiet charisma, and his quiet take-over (you keep waiting for him to come back – not that the film lags when he’s not onscreen, but his presence is felt always) is good and right, because the character’s trajectory shows the absurdity of what can happen in Hollywood, the beautiful convergence of strange-ness mixed with desperate measures that can alter someone’s life forever. It shows what happens when a so-called rube gets in front of the camera. There’s a scene with Hobie that reminds me of John Garfield in Michael Curtiz’ Four Daughters (1938), a somewhat genteel family drama that John Garfield, as “bad boy outsider”, strolls into and walks away with because he makes everyone else seem like cardboard cutouts.
Four Daughters was Garfield’s debut but you watch him (and he disappears halfway through) and think, “It is inevitable that that guy will become a huge star.” His performance pre-dates Brando by 10 years, but it predicts Brando. It opens up the way.
Watch, in Hail, Caesar! how Ehrenreich says the line, “It’s complicated.” He – and Hobie – KILL. IT.
Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes have one bit that is so funny I have no conception of how long it actually lasted, because I was laughing too hard. I’ll have to see it again to clock it. But it was so well done and so funny, on both sides, that I could have watched it for 5 minutes more.
There are surprises throughout. The adorable Veronica Osorio plays Carlotta Valdez, a Carmen Miranda-type, known for doing sexy dances with bananas balanced on her head. She and Hobie are set up for a date by the studio, and she accompanies him to the premiere of his new cowboy movie. They don’t know each other and what on earth could those two people have in common? But they have fun together, are both sweet, doing their best to be entertaining to one another, and also have a good time on this totally manufactured date, that they actually connect. It’s beautiful. Who knows, they might decide all on their own to go on a second date.
Frances McDormand has one killer scene. (Almost literally). She plays a chain-smoking film editor who hangs out in a dark room, splicing together the dailies, nearly setting the whole celluloid-filled room on fire, but flipping switches and cutting and re-rolling the film in an assembly-line automatic way that shows you this is all she does. All day. Every day.
Jonah Hill shows up as a notary, a go-to guy when the studio is in trouble and needs someone to 1. rush through divorce papers at the 11th hour 2. go to JAIL in some cases, “taking the fall” for a movie star in trouble 3. pose as a foster parent. Whatever. He’s on call 24 hours a day. Hill is so deadpan that he seems to be barely there, but that’s what’s so funny about it.
There is a “study group” of show-business Communists holed up in a house in Malibu, discussing the dialectics of history, economics, the “means of production” and how Hollywood plays into it. How they are involved in the story you’ll just have to find out for yourself.
Hail, Caesar! takes place in the space of a manic 24 hours; the timeline is compressed and urgent. Yet there’s an ease to the tone and rhythm overall. Scenes are allowed to breathe, behavior given space to flourish. It’s not manic for the sake of being manic. There’s a deliberate hand behind it (or … two pairs of hands), letting us get to know these people – not so much by seeing their hearts and minds – but by watching them work, watching them do what they are good at doing. Produce. Edit. Act. Swim. Write. Sing. Because that’s really all that matters to them.
I’ve quoted this Stella Adler gem before and it applies:
It is not that important to know who you are. It is important to know what you DO, and then do it like Hercules.
Every character onscreen is doing their thing, whatever it is, like Hercules.
There have been a lot of lists “ranking” the Coen Brothers’ film. Ranking is not my thing. It creates a hierarchy of accomplishments as opposed to a sense of a still-unfolding career. What we are seeing – and have been seeing since the Coen Brothers arrived – is an extraordinary joint career developing over time, film after film after film, each one unique, some more successful than others … but that’s what Art is about. You don’t hit a home run every time you’re up at bat, and artists, even when doing their best, understand that better than most.
Hail, Caesar is not so much an homage to old Hollywood (although you can feel the directors’ love of those old forms, the Busby Berkeley stuff, the Gene Kelly stuff, the cowboy stuff) as a “spin” on some of those old familiar themes. The story reads as a “tall tale,” in a lot of respects. Show business is full of those. Read the gossip columns of Hedda Hopper, et al. They are creating the truth, and then that “truth” is passed on down. Hail, Caesar! has the feeling of gossip, passed down through the ages, clarity lost in the game of telephone. “Remember when Baird Whitlock was kidnapped? Did that actually happen that way?” “Remember Hobie’s first day of shooting that Laurentz picture? Were you there? I know someone who knew someone whose brother worked in the costume department, and he has some great stories.” “Remember DeeAnna Moran’s aquatic movies and what a huge a star she was? I wonder what ever happened to her …”
The film is not drenched in nostalgia, it’s too sharp for that. Its sharpness gives it its unique tone, both funny and fond, as well as its humor and absurdity. The pace never stops. The movies made at Capitol Pictures are made fun of – a little bit – but not entirely. If there’s one thing I can’t stand it is a condescending attitude towards films of the past, and the audiences who loved them. For example, in Hail, Caesar: you can totally understand why Hobie is a star when you watch him in a scene in one of his movies, sitting on the porch of a frontier shack, staring at the moon, strumming his guitar and singing. He’s riveting, and the scene is gentle, quiet, and archetypal in a way that is totally out of style now but you realize how essential it is, how difficult it is to achieve, when you watch it done really really well. You can understand why audiences would flock to see DeeAnna swim towards the camera in a mermaid dress, or Carlotta dancing around with fruit balanced on her head. If these people have one thing in common, it’s that they love what they do. Sugar-coated view of the industry? Not really. It’s closer to reality than you think.
Hail, Caesar‘s ultimate and unexpected gentleness means that you do not feel like you are spending two hours in the company of familiar stock types “play-acting” at being movie stars of a bygone age.
Instead, you feel privileged and grateful to get to hang out with that wacko sincere gang of hard-working screwballs.