Re-make/re-model: Hail, Caesar!

24 February 2016

'Hail, Caesar!' could have been named after any of the productions being made at Capitol Pictures: each is as arbitrary and whimsical as the others. But there’s something religious at work here — not in the spiritual sense, but as regards submitting oneself to the higher god of cinema.

Trust the Coen Brothers to make a film about a movie we never see. Now 61 and 58 years old respectively, Joel and Ethan have specialised for three decades in red herrings and hoodwinking escapades — in films about failed kidnaps, botched betrayals and futile quests for purpose in a cruel, meaningless world. They keep us at bay, hold us at arm’s length: plot twists, narrative entanglements, catastrophes that happen but don’t.

In Sam Raimi’s Crimewave (1985), which the Coens wrote, we begin with the most final act of all: a state execution, death by electric chair — a fate that, following a film-long flashback, doesn’t actually come to fruition. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) opens with Tim Robbins leaping from a skyscraper. Again through lengthy flashback, his suicide is deferred — long enough for us to forget how things end, long enough for some emotional investment in his character to take hold, long enough for a far-fetched miracle to stop him from thudding against the pavement below.

The Coens like to make everything out of nothing just as much as they like to trivialise the momentous. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), a lovingly crafted neo-noir whose clue is in its title, means very little until you interpret it as a muted study of closeted homosexuality. In Barton Fink (1991), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, the brothers fashioned a comical, overblown drama from the unwelcome rut of writer’s block.

With The Big Lebowski (1998), they later admitted to making a film with “a hopelessly complex plot that’s ultimately unimportant.” Burn After Reading (2008) employs a drivelling, nonsensical succession of macguffins — while A Serious Man (2009) draws us into the spiralling life of a Jewish man endeavouring to keep himself from ruin in late 1960s Minnesota, only for his efforts to be rewarded by a biblical storm.

Over time, of course, this seemingly all-out commitment to the deferral of dramatic sincerity becomes, with proper care and attention, nothing if not a dramatically sincere gesture in itself. What else do we expect of filmmakers who edit their own films under a collective pseudonym (Roderick Jaynes, another man who isn’t there)?

Hail, Caesar! is a rollickingly comical tapestry on the follies that make up those dramas, buried and forgotten, behind the scenes of our beloved movie industry. Set in the early 1950s, the Coens’ 17th feature follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), head of production at Capitol Pictures, a (fictional) Hollywood studio whose backlots and sound stages are filled with a motley crew of stars whose off-set lives threaten at any moment to drive the studio into the doldrums of scandal.

Affairs, pregnancies, vicious rumours: all of this is blood for vampiric gossip-columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), two identical twins who compete for telltale headlines. Mannix’s job, to keep an industry that “manufactures stories” (as per Michael Gambon’s typically precise narration) ticking along like his wristwatch, sees him navigate this universe with the calculating, play-them-all-against-each-other ruthlessness of a fixer. (Mannix is a fictional surrogate for a real-life namesake who worked for MGM.)

Those who fall under Mannix’s watchful remit constitute a merry band of fancifully-named, assembly-line entertainers. Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is a young star of cowboy pictures who finds himself out of his depth when working on a comedy-of-manners directed by stiff-tempered Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johannson), the starlet of aqua-balletic pictures, can’t wait to get out of her “fish ass” mermaid costume and let her all-smiles façade fizzle into short-fused boredom.

Meanwhile, Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum, in naval garb and in full-on swoon-inducing mode) is the pin-up lead in a raucously energetic tap-dancing musical. That, at least, is by day. By night, Gurney’s driving out to a plush beach house (think of the villain’s lair in North By Northwest) in order to rendezvous with a group of communist scriptwriters and defect to Soviet Russia by means of a submarine — which emerges off the Malibu coast like a surreal, marine-dwelling dinosaur.

The commies, boosted by the presence of wannabe marxist Herbert Marcuse, have kidnapped Capitol’s chief box office draw Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) straight from the set of — you guessed it — “Hail, Caesar!” They are the latest in a long line of self-bickering, gullibly utopian ransom-demanders or scheme-makers created by the Coens: a whole clan of Steve Buscemis and Peter Stormares from Fargo (1996).

Is any of this worth the trouble? Mannix has his doubts. Offered a tantalising offer to jump sectors and join Lockheed Martin, his scrupulous work ethic and clean-cut moral compass suddenly seem disproportionately valuable in an industry constantly testing his skills with little reward. His faith in the movies, we might say, is under threat: in the film’s first image, crimson blood oozes from a crucified Christ, while its closing image is of a water tower that reads “B E H O L D.”

Hail, Caesar! could have been named after any of the productions being made at Capitol Pictures: “No Dames!” or “Merrily We Dance” or “Lazy Ol’ Moon.” Each is as arbitrary and whimsical as the others. But there’s something religious at work here — not in the spiritual sense, but as regards submitting oneself to the higher god of cinema (“this is very serious”). Mannix’s humble aim to make the kind of swords-and-sandals epic we watch every Easter on ITV4 “with distinction and panache” comes to prove highly infectious and ultimately winning.

These ambitions, verbalised in such throwaway fashion, might stand in for the Coens’ own career-long buzzwords: the brothers have made their fair share of loving odes and updates, including two remakes, The Ladykillers (2004) and True Grit (2010). They know more than anyone, by now, the limits and strengths of filmmaking as an escapist mode — and sure enough, time and again, Hail, Caesar! pulls the rug just when we’re getting into it. Escapism, when done properly, is always concerned with its own mechanisms.

We learn not to invest too much here, as the rug-pulling, recursive nature of this film is especially acute — startling and jarring whenever it steps back from the mise-en-abîme to remind us of the wider fiction. It’s no surprise when Clooney, on top form as another dim-witted knucklehead — and perhaps the only character in the film that comes close to undergoing any kind of spiritual transformation — forgets his lines just as he’s about to deliver a climactic sermon in his film-within-a-film. The word he stumbles on? Faith.

That we invest at all in Hail, Caesar!, however, is surely testament to the Coen Brothers’ directorial powers, and to the immersive qualities of their image-based storytelling. Nothing seems to liberate the Coens’ visual sensibilities like a turn towards the very industry in which they operate: it’s unsurprising that one of the most enduring images among many across the filmmaking duo’s career has been that of John Goodman wielding a shotgun down an endless, flaming corridor in Barton Fink. This latest film pairs the brothers once again with Roger Deakins, the cinematographer with whom they first worked on the 1991 film.

Deakins, shooting on 35mm, gets to test his considerable chops on a variety of visual set-ups here — each of which is so precisely and enticingly lit that it’s difficult to remember that we’re only going to see a snippet before Mannix, ever-concerned with time, proceeds onward. It’s hard to imagine this naggingly seductive work shot on anything other than celluloid: those Venetian-blind strips of sunlight, which cut through the shadowy interiors of Capitol Pictures’ backrooms, are as richly immersive and immediately convincing as the inescapably coloured splendour of “Hail, Caesar!” itself.

The outcome of Deakins’ twelfth collaboration with the Coens is a wildly versatile but consistently scorching visual palette. (The restaurant booth in which Mannix meets the Lockheed representative, all Oriental reds but for the cartoonish blue of a fish tank between them, is a delightful standout.) The importance of such consistency, in a film that persistently runs the risk of alienating its audience through its baton-passing structure, cannot be overestimated.

All of this justified genre-hopping recalls the perfectly controlled stylistic imitations of James Joyce’s literary epic Ulysses. If we re-imagine the Coens’ entire body of work as that shape-shifting, tongue-twisting, deeply self-aware novel — in which each new entry is another means to respectfully upend established rules — then Hail, Caesar! is “Circe”: a kind rearranged hotchpotch of previous themes and motifs. Put another way, it’s the Coen Brothers’ most Coensy film yet.

We’ve been here before. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), the Coens’ Deep South, Depression Era musical, is, like Joyce’s work, a loose adaptation of Homer’s “The Odyssey” — from Clooney’s Ulysses Everett McGill to encounters with Governor/King Menelaus, The Sirens and a one-eyed, Cyclops-like killer. And in referencing a would-be feature production in Sullivan’s Travels — Preston Sturges’s 1941 elegy to escapist movie-magic — O Brother is, of course, another film named after a movie we never see.

An edited version of this article was published here on 24 February 2016.