(Caution: mild spoiler alert)
The films of Joel and Ethan Coen are very attentive to mood – plot, characterization, setting, all seem to be geared toward establishing a strong mood that commands and demands our attention more than anything else. Fargo and No Country for Old Men both emanated a mood of twisted, nihilistic menace, Inside Llewyn Davis a mood of despair so bleak it almost extinguishes the possibility of hope, The Big Lebowski a sense of both lighthearted comic absurdity and bohemian grace under pressure. Their latest film, Hail Caesar!, evokes nothing so powerful. In a way unlike any of their previous outings, Hail Caesar! underwhelms. At best it has an aura of faint nostalgia. But it’s the faintness you really notice, not the nostalgia.
This is not a criticism: I think this is a deliberate and highly effective move on the Coen brothers’ part. As Heidegger might put it, moods are not subjective or non-cognitive: they disclose or reveal an entire world; and as Wittgenstein actually did put it, “the world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man.” Moods matter. Even weak ones. So what does the bleached-out nostalgia of Hail Caesar! actually uncover for its viewers?
The ostensible subject matter of Hail Caesar! is moviemaking in the early 1950s, and its ostensible hero is one Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who runs the day-to-day operations of Capitol Pictures studio lot, but whose actual job is that of a “fixer” – the guy who shields wayward stars from the press, who preserves the reputation of the studio from actresses who get inconveniently pregnant out of wedlock, and, in the film’s central narrative, pays ransom money to kidnappers of A-list icons. Eddie is also a devout Catholic, in the habit of daily visits to the confessional, expressing remorse for such minor infractions as sneaking cigarettes in defiance of his wife’s wishes, much to the consternation of the parish priest who hears this kind of thing from him day after day. Yet despite his frequent confessing Eddie does not seem particularly guilt-ridden. He strives for excellence in his job and his family life, and usually achieves it. His one serious quandary is whether he should quit the studio for a job with Lockheed, which pays better and will be less stressful for him and his family, but about which he is self-evidently not passionate. His decision is a foregone conclusion. There is little dramatic tension involved in this live, forced and momentous choice. A winsome nostalgia for the silver screen will prevail.
But what about this nostalgia? Capitol Studios makes a wide variety of films: big splashy biblical epics, romantic pseudo-English drawing room comedies, Esther Williams-style water ballets, action-packed Westerns, musicals with Gene Kelly-esque dance numbers featuring sailors lamenting the absence of “dames” at sea. The movie is filled with lengthy vignettes from each of these sub-genres (similar in kind to the Busby Berkeley number in The Big Lebowski).
But there is one thing that links all these fictional films together: they are all pretty lame. Not Plan 9 from Outer Space awful, but kitschy, cheesy, schmaltzy, cornball, hokey. Not in terribly bad taste, but nothing transcendent either: no epiphanies or soul-transforming aesthetic revelations in the vicinity. Entertaining? Yes, to a degree. Exhilarating? Enlightening? Excellent? Not a chance.
A central conceit of the film is that of Hollywood’s self-image as the stuff that populist dreams are made of: the world of film allows its audience to escape “average everydayness” and enter a different world, where you can laugh, imagine, and, well, dream before the real world drags you back glumly in line. Mannix is happy to be part of that world. He sees himself has performing a noble social role in doing so, and that is why he likes his job. And who wouldn’t? Hail Caesar’s nostalgia flows from this vision of the movies as dreamland and dreamtime. But still, the nostalgia is faint. It is hard to watch George Clooney’s performance as a Roman Centurion at the crucifixion of Jesus, or Scarlett Johansson’s green mermaid, without wincing. And part of the embarrassment stems from the fact that the Coen Brothers do a very faithful job recreating this kind of filmmaking. “Good Lord”, I kept saying to myself, “people really used to like tripe like this!”
Counterpoised to all this Hollywood chintz is a group of communist screenwriters who are behind the kidnap plot. They capture superstar Baird Whitlock (Clooney, who portrays the handsome imbecile with panache), hold him hostage for $100,000 in a jaw-droppingly beautiful Malibu beach house, wind up converting him to Marxism with the help of supportive professor Herbert Marcuse (!), and then proceed to botch the entire operation. The communists are of the doctrinaire “scientific socialist” type, reading Marx as the author of a rigidly deterministic view of economics and history: they are motivated by a sense that the capitalist studio heads are cheating them of surplus value that is rightly their own, but also out of a sense that they are on the side of history, that the dictatorship of the proletariat and the withering-away of the bourgeois state is as inevitable as the law of gravity. They come across as naïve, bumbling fools, and their goof-up comes as no surprise.
Their studio counterparts are very much in the opium-of-the-masses business, just as the screenwriting communists take them to be. And they are every bit as foolish as the latter. Their movies do not challenge, provoke thought, or give anyone reason to wonder about the wonderful life they portray. If Hail Caesar! is a paean to Hollywood, it is a very ambivalent one. Its mood of nostalgia is, indeed, very bleached-out.
The Coen Brothers are no stranger to irony and ambivalence, however: this is precisely the mood they wish to evoke. In a way, Hail Caesar! is an example of the very schlock they are lampooning. In direct contrast to their last film, Inside Llewyn Davis, the cinematography of which washed out its colors to evoke the bleakness of snow-bound winter in New York and Chicago, the colors of Hail Caesar! are super-saturated, very much an imitation of the artificiality of Technicolor, mimicing an artificially sunny Los Angeles. And its plot, too, borders on the impossibly trite at times, in particular its ending, where the communist plot ends not with a bang but a nautical whimper. It borders on self-parody without quite going over the edge. As if they are saying: see, we can do banality as well as the old masters could.
If we are honest about this ambivalence toward the second- and third-rate, we can see the film’s point. (I was going to say “genius”, but I would like to reserve that for films like Fargo and Lebowski: Hail Caesar! is good, but it does not come close to them in the Coen Canon.) Mediocre dreams are better than none at all. But neither should we pretend they aren’t mediocre, making silk purses out of sow’s ears. Marx himself saw this – in a way that the film’s hapless Marxists would never recognize – when, after the famous “opiate of the masses” quote he dubbed religion “the heart of a heartless world.” (And for the Coens, and millions of others, film counts as a religion as surely as Judaism or Christianity.) Meaning: there is something wonderful about this faith, this hope, this love. But it’s not as wonderful as we would like to think.