I Come to Criticize, and Praise a Little, Too
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
While love has been a major theme of motion pictures since the medium’s inception, Hollywood hath no greater love than that of itself. Thus it was only a matter of time before the filmmakers Coen, les frères Ethan and Joel, would sing a paean to the industry where they’ve so consummately plied their artistry. Set in the 1950s, the last, so-called glory days of the studio system, the deliciously parodic “Hail, Caesar!,” starring Josh Brolin as fixer Eddie Mannix, is both adoring homage and acerbic satire.
Movie buffs will have a field day identifying the characters both scandalous and heroically upright, even if the Coens themselves claim no direct allusions, but rather, just a panoply of familiar stereotypes. In any case, they are by and large a petulant bunch that needs reining-in, and Brolin’s take charge tsar proves an engaging Zeus to their Olympian-like frivolities.
Scarlett Johansson is DeeAnna Moran, the swimming star “pretty sure” who the father of her expected child is; George Clooney is the soon to go missing matinee idol Baird Whitlock, protagonist in the title sword-and-sandal epic that’s causing the studio fits; Alden Ehrenreich is affable cowpoke Hobie Doyle, thrust from horse operas to parlor drama; and Tilda Swinton does double duty as the warring twin gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker. Recognizable extras are the icing on the cake. If there were an Oscar for casting, this would be in the running.
The characterizations are entertaining in and of themselves, blithe spirits tossed into the greater framework of Tinseltown with the McCarthy era barely in the rearview mirror. It presents a bit of a sticky wicket. While the Coens manage a modicum of abstract wit in plumbing this nadir in our political history, the flippant zaniness, attempting a sort of critical judgement without detracting from the overall mood and levity, lacks the sagacious insight we’ve come to expect from the brothers.
This is ameliorated in good part by Mr. Brolin’s interestingly paradoxical company man, as comfortable cleaning up a piece of dirty business perpetrated by one of his irresponsible charges as he is sitting at the kitchen table discussing domestic mundanities with his adoring wife. In the confessional, the Catholic anguishes that he hasn’t told her about the few cigarettes he’s snuck, but feels no compulsion to inform the priest how he’s literally slapped sense into a wayward starlet.
The juggling act Eddie performs to keep all the balls in the air more or less commands the storyline. But this is mostly a movie of moments, wonderful stage sets, charming interactions and screwy ideas about celebrity, all sprinkled with a bit of stardust. While there is ultimately problem and resolution when Clooney’s bigtime star finds himself smack in the den of communist screenwriters, it’s not so much a secondary plot as it is a branch upon which to hang some shtick.
Hence, subplots—from the catty gossip scribes’ rivalry to Eddie’s quandary about a job being tendered him while he’s entirely embroiled in his current challenge—take the place of one main impetus. But, this being the Coens, otherwise adept at mining the comical truth from the most grave issues, one wonders if some hidden metaphor attends the rather frothy view of the commie screenwriters, a gaggle of humorously foppish dilettantes going on about dialectical materialism and such.
More solidly evoked, but nonetheless rife with symbolism, the alliance of Mannix and cowboy singing star Hobie, determined to find out what’s happened to the suddenly disappeared Baird Whitlock, dusts off a good old Hollywood/fantasy scenario just chockfull of moral compass. The cynical inference is that real truth, justice and the American way are possible only in the idealistic make believe of the movies, the celluloid scripture prescribing our behavior and ethics.
Representing this fairy tale business that projects the very best and worst in us, holding up the grand potential whilst cautioning us against that which might mean our fall from grace, Mr. Brolin is a swell hero, anomalously both commonplace and great…just like us. Fresh-faced Alden Ehrenreich as his chance sidekick, the last essence of goodness, is iconically heartwarming. And George Clooney as the cliché who confuses his celebrity with intelligence is, well, O.K.
All this said, I’m reminded of what a fellow journalist once opined: “You know what’s wrong with you film critics? You see so many movies that whenever something a bit novel comes along, you think it’s great.” That considered, this buffet style, loose-leaf sampling of things Hollywood wrapped in wink-issuing nuttiness, could prove slow if not tedious to some viewers, especially if they’re not emotionally invested in the Coen Brothers’ zeitgeist. All of which might explain why some will and some won’t “Hail, Caesar!”
“Hail, Caesar!,” rated PG-13, is a Universal Pictures release directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen and stars James Brolin, George Clooney and Alden Ehrenreich. Running time: 106 minutes