Hail Caesar! is not the first time the Coen brothers have delved into Hollywood's golden era. Barton Fink (1991) was the dark story of an up and coming writer with a crippling mental block and the devil for a neighbour. Fast forward 25 years and the Cohen's have returned to tinsel-town with a fluffier, although no less biting, take on life behind the scenes at the movies. The devil may no longer be living next door but the son of God is still stuck on a cross, even he stays almost entirely out of shot.
In many ways the two films are complementary opposites of one another: Fink somehow constructs beautiful compositions out of disgustingly slimy wallpaper whereas everything in Hail Caesar! is pristine, brightly-coloured and gleaming and yet still manages to seem ugly and vulgar. Fink deals almost exclusively with a writer and occasionally a producer, but never enters the world of directors and actors, whereas in Hail Caesar! it's the writers and producers who almost don't exist, instead the focus is on the stars, the directors and primarily the studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). One has a sealed box that remains tantalisingly closed; the other has a case that is so full of money Mannix struggles to keep it shut. Fink is given a B-movie wrestler picture after he's told his familiarity with "the poetry of the streets...would rule out westerns, pirate pictures, screwball, Bible, Roman...". Hail Caesar! shows various films in the process of being made, almost all of them falling into one of those categories. Fink's crime is a brutal murder, Hail Caesar!'s a kidnapping that could really do with a bit of focus. But Fink doesn't have Bible films and Hail Caesar! does, and what's more they're being done like no-one has ever done them before. But more of that later.
Whilst the publicity for this film has focussed on Clooney, really the film's leading character is 50s Hollywood itself. It's unashamedly a film for lovers of the studio era. The tributes, parodies and references come thick and fast. Mannix is a fictionalised version of a real Hollywood fixer of the same name. There's a Gene Kelly figure (Channing Tatum), an Esther Williams figure (Scarlett Johansson) and a joke about Ben Hur around every corner. Paranoid communists hide out at Malibu Beach whilst Mannix has to bribe and lie to Police and reporters to keep his 'wholesome' stars from getting the wrong kind of attention.
And then there's Clooney. As the studio's top actor Baird Whitlock, Clooney's character isn't based on any one actor in particular, but he's certainly at least one part actors such as Robert Taylor and Richard Burton, one part Ulysses Everett McGill and, I suspect, one part George Clooney. Certainly his getting slapped round the face for expressing his lefty views is hardly something with which Clooney is unfamiliar. Whitlock is arguably an even bigger idiot than his predecessors in the Coen's "numbskull trilogy" and yet when the moment comes, he's able to turn on the star power in such a way that it leaves a lump in his on-set colleagues' throats.
That moment comes at the climax of the film Hail Caesar: A Tale of the Christ which had hitherto provided viewers with several hilarious moments of over-wrought dialogue, unduly earnest performances, portentous voice-overs and good old-fashioned scenery chewing. It also manages to squeeze in almost identical shots from Ben Hur and an almost ginger-headed Christ. That Whitlock's climatic turn has such a marked effect on set is something of a shock - up to this point Whitlock's photo-play had seemed utterly purged of any sense of genuine awe, humility, reflection or wonder. Even the religious advisers Mannix called on in order to make sure he "got everyone's two cents" seem to be particularly shallow - more bothered about the plausibility of being able to swap horses in a chariot race than how the film might effect those who see it.
And yet the film, our film if you will, is one of the Coen's most religious films to date, it's just that its religion, its true religion, happens far away from the self-righteous clap-trap on the screen. Indeed it's noticeable that when Mannix views the rushes after the day's filming, the key moment of divine presence, is fittingly absent, represented only by an intertitle explaining that it has yet to be filmed. There's simply no link between faith and the biblical film Whitlock is shooting.
Significantly, the only time we see Jesus' face, it's on a crucifix in the film's opening shot. The shot's taken from inside the church where Mannix is going to a confessional. Yet what's on his mind isn't what we might think of as the big stuff, such as bribing the police - it's about his failures as a husband. Mrs Mannix (Alison Pill) barely appears on screen, but Mannix feels palpably torn between doing the right thing by his wife and child at home and protecting his almost child-like stars at Capitol studios. It's no surprise that at the end of the film 27 hours later he's back in the confessional having (once again?) delivered his stars from evil.
Of course, that might just be because the confessional is the one place where he isn't being constantly hounded by other people's needs (in fact the priest almost seems to want to get rid of him). Mannix flies from meeting after meeting, placating directors saddled with hapless actors, avoiding a pair of inexhaustibly tenacious reporters (both played Tilda Swinton as this being a Coen brothers film they happen to be twins), reporting to his bosses in New York, listening to offers for a new job and arranging for one of his actresses to adopt her own baby. Perhaps the church is the one place Mannix can find some inner peace. Would that it'were so simple.
Labels: Jesus Cameos