Maybe the Coens started out writing a Masatire but got too caught up in the artifice. Their latest, Hail, Caesar! dances its way through the fictional Hollywood factory “Capitol Pictures,” the same studio which drives Barton Fink’s title character to insanity in their 1991 horror-comedy. Instead of a lambasting of the cynical spirit of early talking pictures, Hail, Caesar! is a series of winking homages to genres dead and gone.
MVP of the last two years Josh Brolin (Inherent Vice, Sicario) plays studio executive and fixer Eddie Mannix tasked with managing stars, gossip columnists, communist agitators and a 10-year contract offer from Lockheed Martin. Brolin doesn’t spend much time on each problem: conflicts are routine and unserious. The meat of the film does not come from the group of soon-to-be-blacklisted screenwriters who kidnap George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock and encourage his Marxist awakening, but the series of mini-movies Capitol Pictures produces. This movie may set a record for movies inside a movie: a western, a Navy musical, a mermaid story, a costume drama, a Roman religious epic. These mini-films feel warm and lived-in, too well-choreographed to be labeled skits. The Coens gift Channing Tatum an extended song and dance sequence as electric as any recent musical. “Capitol Pictures” operates on the assumption that charisma will always keep us from looking too closely at the thinly-veiled set. Tatum proves that illusion true.
This movie makes a new star of its own in Alden Ehrenreich, an immediate induction into the Coen brothers’ Hall of Fame. We first see him sporting two pistols while hanging upside-down from a tree. His face is so empty, so unconvincing that I aligned with him right away. As the new face of the studio, Ehrenreich’s Hobie Doyle tries so hard and achieves so little, but none of that matters to him. His consistent one-dimensionality makes it impossible to look away from him. He’s too dumb to be vulnerable, making him contagiously unbothered. A perfect leading man, Hobie’s the kind of star who would never die in a movie.
This film fulfills very few categories of good satire. It’s too addicted to the fun of making movies to get to the point. Some scenes run several minutes longer than necessary for a single punch line. Mannix lacks any cynicism in an entirely cynical and cruel system, and he rejects Lockheed Martin for no other reason than it seems less entertaining than the movie business. Therein lies what keeps Hail, Caesar! from approaching satire: it is incapable of cruelty and seriousness. The Coens love every character on the screen, even the buffoonish religious leaders more concerned with budgets and plotting than commitment to scripture.
Strip it down and Hail, Caesar! plays like a love letter to the artifice of movies. There are very few consequences for the employees of Capitol Pictures; any problem can be fixed in 24 hours. The Coens covered the pervasive evil of Hollywood studios in Barton Fink and Los Angeles’ lurking nihilism in The Big Lebowski. They know that the Hollywood factory ruined lives and limited artistic expression within the smallest of boxes, and the communist screenwriters who provide the film’s minor conflict preach this corruption. But this movie answers all that with a big “who cares?” When the pictures look this fine, we’ll always ignore what lies beneath.