Hail, Caesar!

February 24, 2016
George Clooney in 'Hail, Caesar!' (2016)
George Clooney in 'Hail, Caesar!' (2016)

“Comedy deserves to be taken seriously,” wrote Aldous Huxley, in 1924, before going on to denounce those “lesser exponents” of the genre who specialise in “triviality, ugliness and vulgarity.” Three years later The Jazz Singer ushered in a new era of ‘talkies’ that would change the way Hollywood made comedies, as slapstick and sight gags were overtaken by witty banter.

Today the triviality, ugliness and vulgarity are back. Instead of wit we are served a relentless stream of expletives, dick jokes and toilet humour. This is what passes for comedy in mainstream American cinema. The most frightening part is that it’s probably the result of extensive market analysis which has discovered a vast, brain-dead audience for this kind of thing.

Leave it to the Coen brothers to buck the system: creating a comedy so lacking in grossness it scores a PG rating. Hail, Caesar! may be the most purely delightful movie Joel and Ethan Coen have ever produced. It’s a fantasy of Hollywood in the early 1950s, that period when the anti-communist blacklist had destroyed the careers of so many of the industry’s brightest talents. It’s a coincidence this film is showing at the same time as Trumbo, which paints a much bleaker picture of those days.

Gritty realism is not a priority for the Coens. In Hail, Caesar! they take everything we know to be true and twist it in another direction. The protagonist is one Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the Head of Production for Capitol Studios. Eddie is not only a powerful executive, he is a fixer, a trouble-shooter and true believer, who might start work before dawn and still be at it in the small hours of the next morning. If a drunken starlet is being photographed in compromising positions, Eddie will put a stop to it. If a screen sweetheart has become pregnant, Eddie will organise a marriage. If a lead actor is kidnapped by communists and held for ransom, Eddie will arrange payment and track the criminals.

One of his most complex feats is to convene a meeting with a rabbi, and priests of the Catholic, Protestant and Greek Orthdox faiths, to discuss whether there is anything potentially offensive in the portrayal of Christ in the studio’s new Ben-Hur-type blockbuster, Hail, Caesar! This leads to a bizarre discussion of theology, and some of the film’s best comic moments. “These men are screwballs!” concludes the rabbi.

Eddie himself is a devout Catholic in a business run by Jewish moguls. He goes to confession on a daily basis but can hardly find any sins apart from a guilty puff on a cigarette.

It’s surprising to learn that Eddie Mannix was a real person employed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to clean up the mess made by the stars. For instance, he is said to have helped Clark Gable beat a hit-and-run driving charge.

The real Eddie Mannix had a dodgy reputation, but the Coens have made him into a saint. No matter how big the crisis, or how much pressure is heaped on his shoulders, Eddie goes about his business in a calm, efficient manner. He seems to love his work even though the hours are punishing for him and his family. Throughout the film he is being courted by the Lockheed corporation, who are offering him a “serious” job with proper money and conditions, but Eddie is reluctant to give up the anarchic studio lifestyle.

Hail, Caesar! follows Eddie for a day and half, during which he has to find a way of covering up the pregnancy of bathing beauty, DeeAnna Morgan (Scarlett Johansson); shoehorn a singing cowboy, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), into a drawing-room comedy; and deal with the sudden disappearance of the studio’s biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), during a massively expensive shoot. All this must be accomplished without attracting the attention of identical twin gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker, (both played by Tilda Swinton).

In this version of Hollywood the communist threat is not a sick fantasy of the McCarthyites, it’s real – although utterly inept. When Baird wakes from a drugged sleep to find himself in a luxurious Malibu beachfront mansion, he confronts a roomful of disgruntled scriptwriters who want to discuss the means of production and dialectics. They even have Herbert Marcuse along to explain the theory. For Baird, who has gone through life without ever extending his intellect, this is revelatory stuff. He quickly forgets that he’s been kidnapped.

The revelation in this film is Ehrenreich’s Hobie Doyle, who struggles through a painfully funny scene of failed elocution with self-styled auteur, Laurence Lorentz (Ralph Fiennes). Although Hobie initially comes across as slightly less intelligent than his horse, he reveals himself to be a man of action in an industry that breeds phoneys and poseurs.

His counterpart is Channing Tatum’s Burt Gurney, whom we meet in a fantastic – wildly homoerotic – song and dance routine about sailors on shore leave. Despite his glitzy image, Burt is a dedicated servant of the Soviets, admired by all the disaffected scriptwriters.

These stories unfold in an episodic manner, with plot lines weaving around the central colossus of Eddie, for whom it is all in a day’s work. The action moves so briskly and the dialogue is so insistently sharp, the viewer’s attention is never allowed to wander.

After the diabolic satire of Barton Fink (1991), the Coens have returned to Hollywood in a satirical but affectionate mood. Even the handsome, imbecilic Baird manages to move everyone with a great set speech – until he forgets his lines. Hail, Caesar! is a romp that simultaneously works to debunk and reinforce the ‘magic’ of the movies in a dialectic the Marxists would be powerless to explain.

Hail, Caesar!
Written & directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand
UK/USA, rated PG, 106 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 27th February, 2016.