Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Hail, Caesar! Give Me That Old-Time Hollywood, with Smirking Sincerity
But what about for Eddie? As Hail, Caesar! opens, he is experiencing a crisis of faith, one that has him rushing to the confessional at regular 24-hour intervals. Eddie is the fixer for Capitol Pictures, one of those titanic Old Hollywood studios that churns out star-powered, machine-authorized hits in the vein of Cecil B. DeMille blockbusters, Busby Berkeley musicals, and John Ford westerns (plus plenty of junk, too). He's wrung out, exhausted from the endless hours and disturbed by the seedier aspects of his job. That doesn't stop him from working. After we first see him unburdening himself to an apathetic priest, he hightails it to the Hollywood Hills and slaps around one of his stars, berating her for posing for naughty photos (the studio owns her glamorous likeness, you see) and sending her to rehab to dry out. Then it's off to the back lot to wrangle obstinate directors, soothe haughty starlets, and divert nosy gossip columnists, the latter of whom are always sniffing out the latest scandal. This is to say nothing of the pictures themselves, many of which are behind schedule; when Eddie finally finds a moment to review the most recent dailies of Hail, Caesar!, he discovers that one of its major set pieces is interrupted by a title card reading, "Divine Presence to be shot."
It's enough to drive a man to drink or, in Eddie's case, to cigarettes. So when you eventually learn that he's being courted by a suit at Lockheed, promising him a cushy middle-management position with a comfortable salary and a lack of stress, you might wonder why he's even thinking twice. But Eddie is loyal, an acolyte of the majesty of motion pictures, and the Coens frame his struggle not as a simple choice between employment opportunities but as an agonizing decision over the potential sale of his soul. Or, as it was put in one of the Harry Potter films by Michael Gambon—the great English actor who narrates Hail, Caesar! in his sonorous diction—it's a choice "between what is right and what is easy". Making movies is hard, but Eddie believes in it.
Inside Llewyn Davis), this one is modern and meta, insistently elbowing you with its cleverness. But though Hail, Caesar! serves as accomplished satire, it feels more cunning than cutting, a cute concept that isn't quite fully formed. As such, it lacks the clarity and singular vision that characterize some of the Coens' best comedies: the anarchic imagination of Raising Arizona, the screwball zip of Intolerable Cruelty, the sheer mania of The Big Lebowski. (Certainly it comes nowhere close to the jagged soulfulness of Barton Fink, the movie's closest analogue in terms of exposing Hollywood dysfunction.)
At one point in Hail, Caesar!, Eddie passionately defends the motion picture industry, arguing that it can bring joy to people everywhere. He's not wrong, and the Coens clearly take their craft seriously, even when they're having so much fun. But while Hail, Caesar! mostly works as a hymn to the movies, it's no less frivolous a movie itself. That divine presence is still out there somewhere, waiting to be shot.