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‘Hail, Caesar!’: Would that it were so simple …

| Thursday, February 11, 2016

banner-caesar-webJanice Chung | The Observer

… though it rarely is when dealing with the Coen brothers. Watching their latest confection, “Hail, Caesar!,” you’re reminded of the closing lines of another Coen brothers movie, “Burn After Reading”: “So, that’s it then. No one else really knows anything. … What did we learn?” “I don’t know, sir.” “I don’t f—— know, either.”

Admittedly, “Hail, Caesar!” is not as marvelously pointless as “Burn After Reading.” This time around, the brothers Joel and Ethan Coen make grand statements about Hollywood, celebrity and communism. Nonetheless, “Hail, Caesar!” is characterized by the same sense of what-the-f— confusion as “Burn After Reading.”

And isn’t that what you want from a Coen brothers movie? For fans of the Coens, yes. But what about the uninitiated? Considering the film’s marketing campaign, you might expect a relatively straightforward backstage thriller, in which a Hollywood fixer (Josh Brolin as devout Catholic Eddie Mannix) rescues a kidnapped movie star (George Clooney as Baird Whitlock) from a shadowy organization (a dozen bearded dudes known as “The Future”). You might also expect that a Gene Kelly type (Channing Tatum) and a Busby Berkeley starlet (Scarlett Johansson) aid Mannix in his quest, and for Jonah Hill to be given considerable screen time.

You’ve been duped. The plot is nothing like the film’s trailers suggest, because, like “Burn After Reading,” “Hail, Caesar!” has no plot. The Coens have always been iconoclasts, amused by toying with their audience’s expectations. In “No Country for Old Men,” genre aesthetics were merely the duo’s playthings. From their macabre sense of humor came the iconic wood chipper scene in “Fargo.” In “Hail, Caesar!,” as per usual, the Coens mix and match high and low culture, absurdist and dry humor, the sacred and the profane. For a film this silly, “Hail, Caesar!” is a real head-trip.

It’s very likely the film’s deceptive trailers were spawned from the minds of money-hungry studio executives desperate to increase the size of their audience and profits. But I like to think the Coens, having realized a film’s advertising was the next logical frontier in audience manipulation, crafted the lies.

If you really were duped, you’re in for a treat, as “Hail, Caesar!” provides more to chew on than its trailers suggest. Mannix is courted by executives from Lockheed Martin, who insist his current employer, Capitol Pictures, wastes his talents on a job that amounts to cleaning up after “circus freaks.” Capitol Pictures is concerned only with swindling money from the public to serve an incompetent, undeserving elite — the movie stars, all of whom are depicted as idiots. Lockheed Martin, in connecting the world, provides a tangible service for the betterment of society — How egalitarian! Or, at least, so claim the Lockheed Martin executives. Watching Mannix grapple with this pitch, observing his inner conflict — his desire for the normal life offered by Lockheed Martin vs. his strange devotion to the capitalist machine that is Hollywood — is one of the chief pleasures in watching “Hail, Caesar!”

The intellectual gymnastics on display are often funny too. Sure, the level of film literacy the Coens expect from their audience can be exasperating, but during a marvelously over-the-top sendup of “The Hunt for Red October,” you realize that if the Coens hold us to a high standard, it’s often for the sake of big laughs. By the time Mannix reaches the lowest, darkest point of his life, and he goes not to a church but to a replica of Golgotha on a studio soundstage, you nearly die.

If the Coens, in so deftly juggling humor and musings, have made a miscalculation, it is in the screen time they allot to the supporting cast. Channing Tatum is rarely seen outside of his superb song and dance number. As the highfalutin director Laurence Laurentz, Ralph Fiennes is criminally underused, though his delivery of the line “cut” in the film’s best scene is alone worth the price of admission.

“Hail, Caesar!” is a critique of individualism, artistic vision and entertainment: How does each shape the others? How does each shape us? At times, the thematic overload is confusing. Though when “Hail, Caesar!” ironically embraces the rank capitalism of Hollywood and hilariously conflates that capitalism and some higher power, the film’s through line becomes evident, and you see that, above all, this movie is utterly nihilistic.

When I saw the movie, many people left the theater displeased by “Hail, Caesar!,” and I was quick to judge them for “not getting it.” I thought I had the last laugh. Though, after reflecting on my experience, after realizing this movie is as much a critique of how we enjoy as it is of what we enjoy — that is, after realizing this movie is a critique of criticism — I must admit that the last laugh really goes to the Coen brothers.

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