The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, provide an on-target parody in Hail, Caesar!, their funny period comedy set in Hollywood of the 1950s.
Hail, Caesar!, directed by the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan. At AMC Assembly Row 12 and Somerville Theatre.
By Gerald Peary
I’ve prided myself on having been a child and then a teenager with a rarefied film sensibility, whose favorite movies as a youngster were such gems as Rebel Without a Cause, The Searchers, Rear Window, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Occasionally, I confess, there was a lapse of taste: at age 15, I adored Ben-Hur on its original 1959 release. I saw it again last year on the big screen, and what insufferable Jesus-freak claptrap, what colossal schlock, and with a script, partly credited to Gore Vidal, as campy and abysmal as something penned by Ed Wood.
And what a sitting target for a roast and ridicule. The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, provide an on-target parody in Hail, Caesar!, their funny period comedy set in Hollywood of the 1950s. That’s the last era when movies were produced on the lot and when the studios reigned supreme. The Coens’ movie takes place at the very MGM-like Capital Pictures, which specializes in singing cowboys and Technicolor musicals and also Cast of a Thousand Biblical epics like the titular Hail, Caesar!, the Ben-Hur send-up with its subtitle, “A Tale of Christ, ripped from General Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel. Never before have the indie Coens been privy to an ensemble as immense of this one, a non-CGI army of Roman legionnaires in full regalia marching through a terrain which sure looks like sunny Southern California. Half of the marchers are whipping bent slaves Monty Python-style, pretty humorous, and through the ranks comes this movie’s Charlton Heston, star actor Baird Whitlock (congenial George Clooney), the soldier’s soldier, so cocky. Until he looks up… into the light from the Heavens…and is stopped in his tracks… by the Son of God.
Hallelujah! But just to be sure the camera’s got it, the scene is shot over and over and Baird keeps mugging, feigning spirituality. He’s less and less persuasive each take, this heathen Roman all shook up by the Lord Jesus. Later on, there are several takes also at the crucial Crucifixion Scene. Look up and see the nailed-down Jesus scratching one bare foot with the other while the camera sets up.
The Coens move around Capital’s sound stages, allowing us to drop in on various films being shot. The funniest is a stiff upper-lip British society melodrama, directed by the studio’s in-house suave gay filmmaker (a hilariously refined Ralph Fiennes). There’s the singing/yodeling/roping cowboy flick, pure Roy Rogers “B” fare which becomes, here, not very credibly, an “A” picture in which a dressed-up audience roars at the slapstick antics of a Gabby Hayes-like bearded old coot. There’s an Esther Williams swimming pool musical sequence, appropriately vapid, and also a well-turned Gene Kelly-style dance number involving a bunch of sailors on leave.
Much of the above is breezy, amiable, an affectionately atmospheric recreation of classic Hollywood. Where Hail Caesar! falters is its slim plot. Clooney’s Whitlock is drugged and kidnapped and held captive by a coven of Marxist screenwriters who meet secretly in a gorgeous house above Malibu Beach. Leftists might take issue with these characterizations from the apolitical Coens. These scriveners were viewed as heroes in the recent film, Trumbo, for courageously fighting the Blacklist. Here they are ineffectual, deluded dummies. Their leader is a “Professor Marcuse” from Stanford University who talks like a flipped-out Sid Caesar creation.
The Coens’ other plot is far better, the story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the “fixer” of Capital Studios, the hardboiled executive. His job is to keep the immoral and amoral actors in line and out of the newspapers and also to placate religious leaders, especially from the Catholic Church, who want the movies to reflect their conservative values. His hardest task is to stop rival twin gossip columnists (both deliciously played by Tilda Swinton) from printing vicious stories about Capital Studio thespians, pregnant and unmarried or secretly into sodomy.
What’s interesting about Mannix is that he loves his job. He is serious about bringing morality to Capital Pictures. He’s a happily married man with two good kids and a loyal wife. He’s also a believing Catholic who goes to confession so often that his priest asks him to cool it. And here’s where the Coens get A Serious Man serious, contrasting the false pieties of the Hail, Caesar! project with Mannix’s religiosity.
He’s religious above all in his belief in the Hollywood System. Is there a God whom he worships and always obeys? It’s the shadowy Studio Head Mr. Schenck (we know him only from bossy phone calls to Mannix) who controls the movie industry from his higher-up New York office.
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.