Hail, Caesar! and the Artifice of Hollywood

If movies are the quintessential American art form, the Coen brothers are our Shakespeare. Hail, Caesar!, the Coens’ latest film, continues their tradition of lifting up the floorboards of American culture to reveal the rot underneath.

If movies are the quintessential American art form, the Coen brothers are our Shakespeare. In a career spanning three decades, their films have examined just about every nook and cranny of the American milieu, from white trash in rural Texas (No Country for Old Men) to puffed-up, pretentious government employees (Burn After Reading) to naive, gullible Midwesterners (Fargo). The Coens have honed their craft to such a degree that even their dud films (The Ladykillers, The Hudsucker Proxy) are still interesting to watch.

The Coens’ films are defined by their willingness to examine aspects of American life that are usually wallpapered over by both Leftists and conservatives. 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis is a tale of a man who failed at life during the most prosperous period in American history; The Big Lebowski is about a ’60s hippie burnout dealing with a world that’s left him behind; A Serious Man examines emasculation and matriarchy in Jewish culture. While their films borrow stylistically from directors of the past, the Coens are capable of making what they steal their own, unlike other postmodern hacks such as Quentin Tarantino.

Hail, Caesar!, the Coens’ latest film, continues their tradition of lifting up the floorboards of American culture to reveal the rot underneath. A savage look at Hollywood’s Golden Age, Hail, Caesar! is another display of the Coens’ ability to weave comedy and suspense into a cohesive whole. While it falls short of greatness, it’s funny enough to make it worth a watch.

Set in the 1950s, Hail, Caesar! revolves around Capitol Pictures production head Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) and his quest to keep his stars’ scandals out of the public eye. The title refers to the studio’s feature movie, a Cecil B. DeMille-esque production on the life of Christ. The plot is set into motion when Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the dopey, alcoholic star of the aforementioned film, is kidnapped by a gang of Communist screenwriters.

Hail, Caesar!‘s central plot is fairly threadbare by the Coens’ standards; the film’s emphasis is on the idiocies of Capitol Pictures’ actors and directors. Much screen time is dedicated to Mannix’s quest to arrange a sham marriage for DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) after she gets knocked up out of wedlock, as well as “singing cowboy” Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) coping with being horribly miscast in a period drama. The film also makes time for a hilariously homoerotic Fred Astaire-style dance number starring closeted Marxist Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum).

The movie succeeds due to the Coens’ comedic touch and attention to detail. Little things, such as Baird Whitlock spending most of the film in a Roman toga and getting his sword holster stuck on chairs, are what sell the movie and keep the laughs coming. For his part, Clooney steals the show; his character’s aggressive idiocy is a callback to his roles in previous Coen films such as Burn After Reading and O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The Coen brothers are masters of using “negative space”: what they don’t emphasize in their films is almost as important as what they do. Hail, Caesar!‘s unstated theme is image: the artificiality of Hollywood and popular culture at large. The film is defined by the phoniness of its characters, whether it’s Mannix working to keep a lid on his stars’ indiscretions, Moran arranging a fake adoption to cover up her pregnancy, or a pair of gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton) threatening to publish rumors about Whitlock’s homosexuality.

The Coens previously explored the manufactured nature of the movie industry in Barton Fink, which depicted Hollywood in its infancy. That film’s titular protagonist found himself crushed between his high-art Broadway pretensions and the mass-market drivel he was expected to write. Hail, Caesar! depicts a Hollywood reeling from the 1948 United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. decision, in which the Supreme Court dismantled the studio system under antitrust laws.

While TCM and Robert Osbourne may paint a rosy picture of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the reality is that the Paramount decision effectively ended it. Hail, Caesar! shows the movie industry’s fall from grace in the ’50s and ’60s, as they resorted to increasingly bombastic productions such as Cleopatra and How the West Was Won to maintain profitability and compete with the emerging medium of television. The film is aided by cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose glossy, colorful landscapes, flimsy sound stages, and poorly-designed props (for example, an animatronic whale near the beginning had me howling) accurately recreate the artificiality of 1950s cinema.

For all its farcical whimsy, though, Hail, Caesar! is also a tribute to one of the few filmmakers who rose above the pomp and circumstance of his time: Alfred Hitchcock. While Barton Fink alluded to Hitchcock as well (most notably in imitating the train tunnel “sex scene” at the end of North by Northwest), Hail, Caesar! ups the ante by naming one of its minor characters “Carlotta Valdez,” a reference to Vertigo. The film also draws inspiration from other 1950’s Hitchcock thrillers such as The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Alfred Hitchcock was one of the first film directors to examine the artificiality and constructed nature of movies themselves. Everything about Hitch’s films, from his much-publicized cameos to the plots themselves, focuses on the blurry line between reality and fiction in Hollywood. North by Northwest is about an ordinary man mistaken for a spy who, by the end of the film, has become a spy of his own volition; Rear Window merges Jimmy Stewart’s character’s perspective with the audience’s, turning them into Peeping Toms; Psycho depicts a man so distraught by his mother’s death that he assumes her identity.

As overrated as it is by critics, Vertigo is the best example of Hitchcock’s motif of film as deception. At its heart, Vertigo is a story about image: Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) falls in love with a woman pretending to be someone she is not, who is in turn pretending to be possessed by the ghost of her great-grandmother. She’s a matryoshka doll of false identities, her relationship with Scottie a Jenga tower of lies. Scottie’s madness and desperation to recreate his fake relationship with Madeleine is a commentary on movie audiences, who choose to deceive themselves for entertainment.

Similarly, Hail, Caesar! is a commentary on nostalgia among film buffs and the golden era they mythologize. It also serves as a warning about the state of modern Hollywood. Capitol Pictures’ obsession with high-budget spectacle has eerie parallels to today’s film industry, which is piling its money into sequels, special effects and comic book movies in a desperate attempt to keep ticket sales from declining. Innovative, visionary directors such as David Lynch have been handed their pink slips as movie studios pump out schlock like Guardians of the Galaxy, Mad Max, and an endless succession of Star Trek and Star Wars sequels. Just as the Golden Age of Hollywood ended, this situation cannot last.

As thin as its central plot may be, Hail, Caesar!‘s big-picture analysis and attention to detail provide enough guffaws to make it well worth watching. All hail the Coen brothers: they haven’t let us down yet.
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