Hail, Caesar
Produced by Mike Zoss Productions 
and Working Title Films 
Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen 
Distributed by Universal Pictures 

In Ethan and Joel Coen’s latest film, Hail, Caesar!, we’re taken back to the Hollywood of the early 1950’s, lovingly recreated but set darkly askew.

That was when the dream factories were scrambling laboriously to tempt the public away from their newly purchased televisions.  To do so, filmmakers were mounting productions that, among other things, deployed dubious piety and synchronized aquatics.  Accordingly, biblical epics and extravagant water musicals were the primary fare at the Bijou.  The Coens show us how it was, but, as you would expect, they undercut the sumptuous cinema of our memories with their patented satiric outlook.  They do so by cutting from one soundstage to the next at Capitol Pictures, the boys’ version of MGM.  There’s Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) in a Roman tribune’s breastplate and leather skirt snapping his chariot’s reins as he rides across the North African desert toward Rome, in Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ, which looks suspiciously like Quo Vadis (1951).  On the next lot we have DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) as a not quite reasonable facsimile of a smiling Esther Williams.  She’s wrapped in a rubber mermaid tail, and as she rises on a geyser above a huge pool, a bevy of treading bathing beauties below form a circle through which she will dive.  Once she has done so, however, she proceeds to rip off her fish tail, complaining in a Brooklyn accent that it’s exerting far too much pressure on her pregnant tummy.  This condition is an embarrassment.  There’s no husband to congratulate.  The studio is arranging for the Loretta Young option: DeeAnna will have to adopt her own baby.  (The real Williams suffered a different problem thanks to that dive: She broke three vertebrae in her neck, and though she recovered, she suffered from the injuries for the rest of her life.)  Later we enter a room full of Jewish screenwriters—all dedicated communists, as it happens.  They have kidnapped Clooney in his Roman attire to a Malibu beach house and are instructing him on the exploitation of the workers.  They cheerfully tell him how they’ve been serving their cause by busily inserting Soviet propaganda into their scripts since the 30’s.  After many false starts, Clooney begins to recognize dimly what they’re talking about.  He recalls how Danny Kaye once exploited him by demanding he shave his back, a story that seems deeper than class.  You’ll be happy to learn there’s also a Russian submarine that surfaces off the coast of Malibu to pick up Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum, playing a slightly more radical Gene Kelly).  The Soviets are taking him to Moscow, where he’s destined to become The New Man.

How could such conceits be anything but riotously funny?  And yet they’re at best mildly amusing.  Perhaps it’s that they each have a basis in historical truth, and, further, by making light of their source material, the Coens have mocked those who, with good cause, took them very seriously in the 50’s.  After all, injured stars and Cold War subversives were no joke at the time.  Nor are they today.

I’ve been a fan of the Coens from their earliest films, but here something has gone seriously amiss.  Perhaps their outlandish conceits are so overly determined that their comic potential has been squeezed out of them, much as the rubber fishtail threatens to squish the life from Miss Johansson’s ripe torso.  Whatever the reason, I’m sorry to report the film is a dud.

There’s much to admire in the Coens’ inventions.  Admiring, however, is not the same thing as enjoying.  Humor should sneak up on us, taking us by surprise before we have a chance to comprehend it intellectually.  The scene in which the Hollywood writers convene in that upscale Malibu residence illustrates my point.  When Clooney asks if they’re having a meeting, one of them replies no; it’s more in the nature of a “study group.”  And that’s just what it is: a study group replete with Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, who has ambled in from his perch at the University of California.  (Actually, this is a piece of the fantasy; Marcuse wasn’t spewing his noxious nonsense in California until the later 60’s.)

This could be said of the entire film.  Its various entertainments compose a sort of illustrative audiovisual accompaniment to what the Coens clearly consider a study group in which we, the audience, are being instructed.  Here, they say, is Hollywood, a realm of fantasy production designed to entertain and assure us that the larger world is basically a safe place for Americans.  How could it not be, given such visions of the good, the beautiful, and the seemingly true served up in vibrant Technicolor?  To assure that the message is not contaminated by negative thinking, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is on hand.  The character is loosely based on the real Eddie Mannix, who, by all accounts, was a thug retained by MGM to rein in the excesses of its overpaid stars.  As played by Brolin, he’s stalwart in his employer’s employ, diligently fending off gossip columnists ever on the scent for out-of-wedlock pregnancies, alcoholic benders, and bouts of sodomy among the stars.

As I write about the film, I find myself enjoying it much more than I did while watching it.  This in itself, I suppose, illustrates the problem.  The Coens have approached their material too intellectually.  There’s no room for the laughter they certainly hoped for.

Before leaving the film, I want to consider its last scenes.  Clooney has been rescued and returned to the soundstage to finish his last scene in Hail, Caesar!  He looks up at the crucified Christ and recites his lines with such conviction that the assistant directors, technicians, cameramen, and extras are all transfixed by his eloquence.  It seems more than acting; he is the Roman soldier who recognized the truth of Christ’s message.  But then Clooney stumbles as he approaches the close of his speech.  “That is the tale this man tells,” Clooney gravely and convincingly intones, “a tale we can hear if we have but . . . ”  And then he falls silent.  He’s forgotten the final word.  Yet it couldn’t be simpler nor more obvious: It’s faith, of course.

How are we to take this scene?  Is it one with the mockery of the rest of the movie?  Or is it a bit of mournful nostalgia for the faith that seems for so many to have departed our world?  With the Coens it’s difficult to know.  Since this movie is, like many of their others, laced with metaphysical and religious concerns—think of No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man—I suspect their mockery is somehow the same thing as their nostalgia, and we’re witnessing two lost Jews trying to find themselves against the backdrop of a world fatuously denuded of all significance.  It’s either that, or they have surrendered to an unrelievedly black nihilism.