The Coen Brothers’ latest movie tells the story of a day in the life of Eddie Mannix, the real life MGM studio executive and “fixer”. He covered up scandals and dealt with the press, as the movie shows. He also beat his partners and helped business contacts escape rape charges.
This side of him is missing from Hail, Caesar!, which both fictionalises and sanitises the man. Instead, Mannix (Josh Brolin) is an unresting force of organisation and quick thinking, absurdly good at his job.
His exaggerated behaviour is one example of the filmic aesthetic that dominates this movie. The film is punctuated by set pieces that exemplify and mock classic Hollywood genres — the historical spectacle, the stunt-laden Western, the glossy mermaid dance. In these moments, the image is bright and the performances fluid. Although in these clips the Hollywood aesthetic is at its purest and most extreme, the whole movie is imbued with 1950s Hollywood gloss. Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) never takes off his Roman costume, and young Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) never seems to put down his lasso — the actor is as much a cowboy as the characters he portrays.
The film never quite becomes fantasy, but it is fantastic, as if real life is exaggerated simply by proximity to Hollywood. The cast of today’s big stars, playing amalgamations of yesterday’s, approximates the movie magic that was and is so intoxicating. The film never forgets, however, that this narrative is troubling, and that Hollywood doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We never see those who participated only by watching the movies, sitting next to us in the cinema. But we are made to consider what sort of messages men like Eddie Mannix might want to communicate, and whether Hollywood can ever, despite its commercial interests, be used to inspire rather than to placate.
The studios, the star system, the ridiculous set pieces, the matte paintings, the early years of the Cold War, the threat of television — it’s all treated with a clear and honest nostalgia which never overcomes the hesitation the movie has about the whole thing, never completely embracing the romance. Told from Mannix’s perspective, Hollywood is a lot of hard work, and not especially satisfying. Mannix spends the movie trying to justify his choice to continue doing it, rather than finding some other kind of work.
He encounters a group of communist writers, who boast of sneaking their message into the movies they work on. Again exaggerated, these are the blacklisters’ fears come true. Both parties justify their involvement in the film industry by its persuasive power, and the movie’s central question is the control of this power.
Hilarious, stylish and as smart as any of the Coens’ more serious pictures, Hail, Caesar! addresses the history of Hollywood not quite head-on and not quite honestly. It’s never self-indulgent, though, and there is an ironic distance kept which ensures the movie’s perspective isn’t overly clouded by nostalgia.