On Oscar night, I took the kids to the movies because, really, who can watch that thing any more? I guess the lady-folk like the dresses, but even then, I’m thinking it’s an older generation (like my mom hangs out all day in an Oscar-stupor, while having seen exactly one of the movies nominated, Creed). I don’t recall, early in my youth, it being such a fiasco but that may have been because there were so many fewer options back then: Fewer movies, fewer awards to hand out, fewer alternatives for entertainment. Hard to believe it wasn’t just as ridiculous when Brando had the Indian-for-Hire accept his award.
Though, there was a time—right around the same time as the Littlefeather nonsense—when Oscar had to worry about a culture less dignified than itself (though a culture it helped create). I’m speaking of the streaker that ran behind David Niven in the mid-’70s, when streaking was (yes!) a national hobby, of sorts. Niven, after being a bit flustered, delivers the joke that I’m sure was prepared well in advance. (That’s how inevitable a streaker would be.)
A propos of this is the latest Coen brothers movie Hail, Caesar! which gleefully points out that, in truth, Hollywood’s always been goofy, dysfunctional and, quite frankly, none too bright.
This is the a rare Coen brothers movie in that the protagonist is a genuine hero. In most of the Coens’ movies, the main characters are varying degrees of likable, and highly varying degrees of competence. Like we could consider The Dude a hero—I won’t say “hero”, ’cause what’s a hero?—but he’s mostly tossed along by the story. He doesn’t act, he reacts. There’s Raising Arizona, where H.I. acts to get his wife a baby, but of course, that’s a criminal act that leads all sorts of mayhem. Llewellyn, of No Country for Old Men, is certainly bold, but he, too, is carried along by events in he doesn’t really understand (after his initial critical act). The only other movie I can think of that really matches is Miller’s Crossing, but I’m not convinced Tom knows what’s going on, and his ending dialogue with his boss (Albert Finney) sort of suggests he was winging it.
In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion in recent years, the Coens’ oeuvre could be summed up with the old Yiddish proverb: “We plan, God laughs.” From Larry Gopnick (A Serious Man) to Abby (Blood Simple), good guys and bad, nobody really knows what’s going on. Maybe it’s because, as Charlie says to Barton (Barton Fink), we just don’t listen! But whatever the cause, the only exceptions to this rule I can think of is the heroic (but still rather clueless) Marge Gunderson (Fargo), the disreputable Rooster Cogburn (in that most un-Coen of movies, True Grit), and now Eddie Mannix.
Josh Brolin (No Country For Old Men) plays Eddie (based on real-life Hollywood “fixer” Edgar Mannix) running Capitol Pictures (which hired egghead playwright Barton Fink to do some “wrestling pictures” with Wallace Beery) whose days are filled with trying to preserve the “good girl” image of the dissolute DeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johannson, The Man Who Wasn’t There, channelling Esther Williams and Loretta Young), trying to find a lead for respectable filmmaker Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes, who looks like he hasn’t changed clothes since The Grand Budapest Hotel) said to be channelling Vicente Minnelli, but with some sort of Noel Coward-esque thing going on, being forced to fill that role with a singing cowboy who does rope tricks and stunt riding (Alden Ehrenreich, who does a great job in a mashup of All The Singing Cowboys), while managing the religious sensitivities surrounding his latest Jesus picture, the titular Hail, Caesar! (Asked to comment on the theological content, one of the holy men says he doesn’t see how the star could leap from one chariot to the next like he does, suggesting a little Ben Hur homage.) Meanwhile, he’s dodging bitchy gossip column twins Thora and Thessaly Thacker, both played by Tilda Swinton (Burn After Reading), who appear to be “if Hedda Hopper had a twin sister relationship like Dear Abby and Ann Landers.” Or, “If Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons were twins,” if you prefer to keep it strictly Hollywood.
As chaotic as things are, the stuff hits the fan when the lead of Hail, Caesar! Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, O Brother! Where Art Thou, Burn After Reading, Intolerable Cruelty)—who seems to be channelling a bit of Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas, and frankly, a lot of George Clooney—is kidnapped. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: It’s fine with me if Mr. Clooney works exclusively with the Coens for the rest of his career. And I’m not just saying that because Brolin slaps the crap out of him.
Eddie’s job is to handle all these threads, while retrieving Baird, not letting the Thackers find out, and doing it before the final scene of Hail, Caesar! has to be shot. Meanwhile, he’s fielding a serious offer from Lockheed to run their Burbank installation—a job that would pay better and have regular hours, as well as be much easier and less stressful. And it would allow him to retire in ten years. (In this movie, Mannix is portrayed as a squarely middle-class patriarch who doesn’t spend enough time at home with his wife and kids, and goes to confession every morning to tell his priest that.)
Now, much like O Brother! was an excuse to showcase old timey music, Hail is an excuse to revive some old Hollywood stories and set pieces. And this by itself is just a lot of fun. Channing Tatum doing an On The Town-style dance number a la Gene Kelly? Adorable Veronica Osorio as a Carmen Miranda-esque counterpart to the singing cowboy, as two of the most straightforward people in town. Frances McDormand channelling Margaret Booth and nearly being strangled by her Moviola.
Everything seems so familiar, just slightly off. The gates of Capitol Pictures remind of the Paramount gates, but when the actors are walking in, they turn left, and all of a sudden, the studio looks like Warner Bros., with rows and rows of sound stages backed by the Santa Monica Mountains. The cowboy picture looks like it’s shot where all the cowboy pictures were shot (Vasquez Rocks?). The Carmen Miranda homage was named Carlotta Valdez—not an actress, not even a real character, just a sort of MacGuffin from Vertigo. Even the opening scene, where Mannix saves a young starlet from ruining her career by letting a guy take cheesecake pix of her, rings enough bells to send out the whole fire brigade. It’s even shot on actual 35MM film, though there’s some obvious CGI with the overhead shots of the studio, shrouded in smog.
Anyway, as you can imagine, there was nothing about this I didn’t like. But The Boy and The Flower laughed to beat the band, too. So I don’t get the rancor that some seem to have about this film. Critics on RT have given this a quite respectable 83%, but audiences have it below 50%! The only criticism of it that strikes home to me is that today’s stars are really shabby compared to yesterday’s. That is, Channing Tatum is athletic and game, but he’s no Gene Kelly. Scarlett Johansson is pretty enough (though she looks a little ragged here) but the charm of those old Busby Berkeley numbers is that the smiles—somehow—looked genuine.
I was happy that they seemed decent people, if not particularly bright, and I thought this was deliberate, since we’re essentially going behind-the-scenes at the sausage factory. Really only Toby, Carlotta and Laurentz came off with real glamour. The former two may be because they’re young and relatively unknown. (The latter because, well, it’s Ralph Fiennes. And also perhaps because he’s not emulating an icon.)
But I think to complain about this is to complain about the state of the world. And whose fault is that, you blogging, tweeting, slacktivist Adam-Sandler-movie-watching MoFos?
Now I’m going into overtime to discuss one other aspect of the film that’s slightly spoiler-y, so if you want to avoid even the mildest of spoilers, now’s your chance.
OK, the kidnappers, our villains, were screenwriting communists. A buddy of mine, on seeing the film, felt the Coen’s chickened out by not making them specifically the actual blacklisted screenwriters, but I disagree. Here is a group of people who are doing exactly what it was said they were doing by the Left’s favorite ’50s American bete noir, McCarthy, and what’s shown is that: a) They’re not very bright; b) The actors who tend to parrot what they say are even dumber (Baird); c) A healthy amount of self-interest is involved in the venture. (Writers want more money, and they always, always, always want more credit.)
Not that this is a political statement per se. But, as I said earlier, the most prevalent thread running through the Coens’ movies is a complete and utter failure of the principals to understand what is going on. Not just events they’re thrust into, as with The Dude, but the events that they cause or think they’re causing, as with Llewyn Davis’ reckless sexuality. It’s a little hard to see them endorsing a central planning form of government, but maybe they’ve never thought of it in those terms.
And really, who cares? This is a good, fun movie, that is extra-entertaining for lovers of the Golden Age of Hollywood.