Fitting for a film about conviction and the inclement weather that tests it, Hail, Caesar! ought to wash away any and all false prophets proclaiming visions of the Coen Brothers’ malfeasance and sociopathic hatred for mankind. Cynicism is their tool, and their films are prone to a particular brand of withering sociopolitical critique, but the two writer-directors are, and have been, expert stegenographers for the better part of three decades now. Hiding in plain sight in almost all of their films is a stress-tested but never broken love of both the sweeping grandeur of cinema and the gnomic bits of dogmatic human persistence undercutting the seemingly abusive, surrealist death and destruction sometimes at play in this universe of ours. There’s is a scabrous, sometimes maladjusted brand of humanism, but the Coens are humanists nonetheless.
With Hail, Caesar!, their metatextual playground of cinematic wrench-throwing barely disguises their unbridled affection for the intoxicants of classical cinema craft at its most voluptuous and untroubled. Indeed, the Coens do trouble it up a touch, as they are wont to do, but only for the purpose of comparing, favorably, the three-ring circus of behind-the-scenes craft to the veritable cornucopia of overflowing joie de vivre that shows up on the screen. Watching Caesar is an exercise in cinematic confectionery strung along on a deceptively sinister, sincere exploration of personal crisis and faith in a world run amok.
Like any good deconstructed Hollywood epic, Caesar partakes in its own self-mocking stash; the through-line where Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) investigates the disappearance of meatheaded superstar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is intentionally, devoutly circumspect, just flippant and screwy enough for the Coens to pretend to follow along while they instead play to their hearts’ desires and indulge in the intoxicants of the Hollywood contraption. Tangents aren’t travesties but transgressions in a film willfully oblivious to its own narrative because it has been wooed by the very Hollywood elephantiasis it so jubilantly mocks. Caesar’s most fluent encapsulation of the power of the cinema is found in becoming that which it exposes. The haphazard narrative structure, the broadly wild characters, the movie magic that shines most incandescently in the grandiloquent set-piece or moment rather than in the linking dialogue scenes; all are features of the ’50s Hollywood tentpole, and they are all ultimately the bread and butter of the Coens’ film too.
Highlights, equally smitten with and self-aware about Hollywood history, include a luscious mermaid diving setpiece with DeeAnna Moran (a gilded Scarlett Johansson) and a song-and-dance routine featuring a nimble, doughy Channing Tatum and galvanized in a screwy layer of homoeroticism. Both sequences don’t overstay their welcome, but the film pampers the scenes with Roger Deakins’ always inspiring cinematography and sense of symmetry. The film’s most inspired post-modern gestures however see the glitz and glamor of the Hollywood stage persevere in supposed real life, such as during a glowing patchwork submarine sequence that is luminously hand-crafted. Here, and elsewhere, the Coens’ ever-appreciable belief that life sometimes imitates Hollywood permeates full-bore.
Although Mannix is the protagonist, an oddball hero emerges out of sheer willpower in Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich, the shining light of the film’s performances), a dimwitted cowboy whose can-do spirit and countrified wisdom reflect both a Coenesque interpretation of finding beauty where no one is looking as well as a ringing, if calloused, endorsement of the middle America they hail from and have so often turned to for both spiritual guidance and a punching-bag. The barbed screenplay omnivorously and non-discriminatingly devours everyone from the unsmiling extras to the peppery backroom editor CC Calhoun (Frances McDormand) to the pompous auteur Laurence Laurentz (Ray Fiennes) to, most notably, the well-to-do Communist screenwriters whose ascetic prim-and-proper interpretation of Marxist doctrine renders it almost slothful in its failure to accomplish anything through nonexistent praxis. Ultimately, the film is cartographic in lightly ribbing Hollywood holsters both big and small. Hobie, for his part, is both the unlikely outsider whose freshness ripostes Hollywood royalty and the artificial warrior accidentally plucked up by a screenplay that mimics, and thus mocks, the impromptu addiction of Hollywood films for discovering, or faking, hero-dom out of thin air.
Naturally, religion is on the mind with Caesar as well, as it has been through many of the Coens’ features as they have attempted to divine what makes the world tick. Mannix is a devout man for whom the entropy of Hollywood represents a Byzantine labyrinth of truth and consequences that constructs, however backwardly, an individual soul looking to find peace and harmony with his conscience. The temptation of 1950s era LA is a fertile testing ground for Mannix, much as Minnesota in the late ’60s was a hotbed of restless nights and unquiet mental activity for Larry Gropnik in 2009’s under-appreciated A Serious Man. Caesar’s ostensibly tentative commitment to its plot itself becomes a parable for addiction to film and the fight to keep your head above the waters of a sparkling-eye cinematic high. As the Coens know, just because you’re in love with something doesn’t preclude its dangerous waters from getting the best of you.