Everyone a winner
Looking back on the Coen Brother’s output, Ethan and Joel, always brings a pleasant glow and a smile. The best are quotable, like Fargo, (1996) or No Country for Old Men, (2007). All leave you with at least one memorable image. I can watch any number of repeats of the silent hula hoop scene in The Hudsucker Proxy, (1994) brilliantly choreographed to Khachaturian’s ‘Sabre Dance’. Or I wriggle uncomfortably at the wood chipper scene at the end of Fargo. Another is the grizzled hairy biker draped in grenades in Raising Arizona, (1987) getting beaten off by a demented Nicolas Cage.
I can think of only one bummer the Coens have produced, the 2004 remake of the Ealing Studios classic, The Lady Killers. Why bother? The original is perfect. Fine actor as Tom Hanks is, he’s no Alec Guinness.
Their most downbeat hold attention too. There are very few lows in the oeuvre, the ones that are usually are an intense study of a single individual, less laugh-out-loud, but with insight into the human condition presented with great style. I’m thinking of the 2013 odyssey of a wannabee songster Inside Llewyn Davis, a man unable to perceive he hasn’t got the extra spark of creativity or charisma to capture the public’s affection. The Coens have successful films, and unsuccessful films. None are truly bad.
Style over substance
They get criticised by reviewers for being all style and little substance. I reject that. They have a withering eye for the inanities, the stupidities of human behaviour. They know we all manage to manufacture ourselves into ridiculous situations. I’ve watched O Brother, Where Art Thou, (2000) six times, and I have the CD of the score, a film that is full of life’s idiocies. They take risks in showing us the humdrum – a five minute single shot of a married couple in bed talking about the day’s chores in Fargo, for example.
Their dialogue always sounds authentic. They have a way of making an everyday figure of speech carry great meaning, an element spotted in their rewriting of Bridge of Spies, (2015). A before-dawn visit to the bungalow of a rising starlet has Hail Caesar’s studio boss (Josh Brolin) on his first duty to keep his stars disciplined, greeted by the police with the line a “possible French-postcard situation.” It’s a great line, one that perfectly demonstrates the filmmakers’ ear for milieu-specific language, a consistent pleasure in their movies.
One of their strongest attributes is an acute perception of historical detail. They seem to know instinctively how somebody talks, walks, and dresses in their period dramas. Their latest offering, Hail, Caesar!, a gentle comedy, sits snugly in that category.
How to run a studio
Hail, Caesar! is essentially twenty-four hours in the life of a dynamic, tough but harassed studio executive, Eddie Mannix, played by Brolin, ‘Mannix’ being as close a word to manic as possible. For some reason they add a sporadic voice-over narrator spoken by Michael Gambon that doesn’t add much to the film, nor any humour.
Mannix’s day is interspersed with rescuing stars from themselves, keeping production costs down, juggling with intrusive Hollywood gossip columnists, mollifying irate directors, fixing legal problems, outwitting paparazzi, and trying to solve the disappearance of one of his main stars playing the lead in a cheesy biblical epic.
The Coens have touched on life in Hollywood before, most forcibly in Barton Fink, (1991): a screen writer suffering writer’s block. In Caesar the Coens try to embrace all aspects of Hollywood production, executive decisions, difficult stars, bored extras, cheated writers, camp directors, expensive music, compliant publicists, and studio lawyers.
A bit threadbare
I’m not sure they’re altogether successful in their ambition to weave a sustainable story. They tell the story in bustling, continually on the move, vignettes that collectively have no resolution, and too often contain flat spots between them. Try following posts on a social website that are broken up by other comments not germane to the one you’re following, and you’ll get my drift. They are connected only by the central character of Mannix. Perhaps that mirrors life for a top executive trying to keep order in a profession best described as organised chaos. Flat spots aside, it is very funny.
One aspect some cinemagoers might find mystifying – a lot of the sight gags and studio jargon demand an intimate knowledge of the daily workings of a busy Hollywood studio. I recognised immediately some visual aspects of Los Angeles and the actor’s colony of Malibu depicted as if 1950, but if you’ve neither worked there, nor lived there, some clever references will pass you by.
A bit of a mixed bag
The Coens’ remembrance of this bygone era is wry, perceptive and mordant, just not as sleazy or salacious as it could have been. Though there’s lots of buoyancy, the introduction of the Bikini Atoll Atomic bomb and communists is given little force, if historically accurate, and a bit of a send-up.
The ‘fictional’ studio is Capital Pictures, a studio that actually existed. Mannix has the official title “Head of Physical Production” at the fictional Capitol Pictures, the same outfit that employs the blocked writer in Barton Fink. Mannix is a devout Catholic. The frequency of Mannix’s visits to the confessionals and his bored priest is one of the film’s running gags. But his sins are minor, failing to stop smoking and lying to his wife about it, and slapping a movie star in anger, trivial in comparison to the real-life Mannix. He was suspected of, among other ‘misdeeds’ of plotting to murder actor George Reeves, a sordid tale recounted in 2006’s Hollywoodland, featuring Bob Hoskins as the clean-up man.
On the Capitol production lot, Mannix watches rushes of Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, a bloated biblical epic starring the studio’s top box-office draw, Baird Whitlock, (George Clooney), a nitwit who is abducted on set by a pair of toga-clad extras working on behalf of a Communist cell.
Two particular scenes stand out as beautifully written comedy: a bunch of left-wing writers trying to get George Clooney’s dimwit star to understand the evils of capitalism and dialectical materialism. Sadly, the scene is repeated needlessly three times. In another scene, a meeting held in Mannix’s board room with four religious leaders, priest, tetchy rabbi, Greek orthodox, and Muslim gets lost in a barrage of hilarious bickering and non sequiturs as they try to discuss what they think of the Deity as depicted in the sword and sandals epic under production.
Solid actor as Brolin is, he’s outclassed and outshone by Clooney who dominates the action whenever he appears. Other notables playing in ancillary movies on the lot are an Esther Williams copy, the aqua-musical star DeeAnna Moran, played by Scarlett Johansson with great verve and an impeccable Brooklyn brogue. Overweight, she’s having trouble fitting into her mermaid costume. “Pretty boys – saps and swishes,” DeeAnna snaps at Mannix, dismissing the previous suitors and husbands he’s been forced to find for her.
There’s another comical scene involving a singing cowboy removed from his comfort zone lassoing horses on location to be stuck in bib and bow-tie in an English upper class effete drama. Hobie Doyle played by Alden Ehrenreich – a young actor showing a lot of promise – massacres his opening line in the drawing-room drama directed by the effete Laurence Laurentz, (Ralph Fiennes).
We all danced
Finally, there’s a lively song-and-dance number staged with tremendous brio and wit. In an affectionate send-up reference to On the Town, MGM’s soaring 1949 musical, a group of tap-dancing sailors in homo-erotic snug-fitting Navy whites start to croon “No Dames” led by Burt Gurney, a well-chosen Channing Tatum, here cast as Capitol’s most athletic hoofer. To my mind, Channing is not an actor with a memorable face or voice, but he certainly can dance.
Like the best moments of Hail, Caesar!, these scenes expose the dream machine’s inanities, hypocrisies, and frustrations, which add up to a pleasant evening in the cinema watching how cinema is made.
The practised eye of a fine cameraman
I have to draw attention here to the superb work of of three regular Coen collaborators: English cinematographer Roger Deakins, and costume designer Mary Zophres.
The well-chosen music and musical numbers are the work of Carter Burwell, a composer who has worked on sixteen films with the Coens.
Money well spent
I like the Coen brothers for many reasons. I like them because they make films I wish I could have made here in Scotland, subject matter duly modified. We don’t have our own infrastructure to facilitate filmed drama, nor the funds. I like them because, like lots of directors, they wanted to act in their own films and were only dissuaded from doing it early in the their writing career by a producer who knew better.
I admire that, after all the pictures they’ve written and directed, they have not parted over a creative dispute. I can’t but help liking Ethan who has a degree in philosophy. His thesis was a 41-page essay, “Two Views of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy“. And I like Joel, married to the talented actress Frances McDormand. (She has a cameo appearance in Caesar, almost unrecognisable.) They adopted a son from Paraguay, and named him… wait for it … Pedro McDormand Coen. Latino, Irish, and Jewish all wrapped up into one.
Somehow that seems to encapsulate their cultural influences and this film.
- Star Rating: Three-and-a-half
- Cast: George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Josh Brolin.
- Written and Directed: Ethan and Joel Coen
- Composer: Carter Burwell
- Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
- Duration: 1 hr 45 mins
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: Excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: Crap; why did they bother?