There’s a zen saying that suggests, “The most dangerous thing in the world is to think you understand something.” This could be a good description for the outlook of any Coen brothers’ film, works invested in ambiguities and absurdities of human lives as reflected in the worldviews and systems that control them. One man’s belief is another man’s mystery, and Joel and Ethan Coen have made a career out of stories of existential crises told through oddball humor and offbeat suspense. Their latest is Hail, Caesar!, a film full of people who think they understand, having figured out deep reverence for some larger ideological force or another: the Bible, Das Kapital, Hollywood’s studio system. But where does that certainty get them? It’s the early 1950s, and a studio fixer (Josh Brolin) is heading into a day that’ll be full of complications to test many a person’s certainties, a straight-faced screwball panic, or maybe philosophical wrestling on laughing gas. Either way it’s a pip, but with typical Coen precision and deliberateness.
Sustained goofing on classic Hollywood, a day-in-the-life on the backlot not too far removed from Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont’s, the Coens follow Brolin’s studio suit from set to set wrangling stars, quelling complaints, and staving off controversy. The fictional Capitol Pictures is hard at work on several movies: a bathing beauty musical, a wordy melodrama, a dancing sailors movie, a singing cowboy picture, and a Biblical epic. Bopping between the films in progress we’re presented with a great imitation of Hollywood iconography: a little Robert Taylor here, some Esther Williams there, with Gene Kelly, Roy Rodgers, and others thrown in for good measure. It’s like a bleary Turner Classic Movies binge if you kept passing out and dreaming ridiculous connective behind-the-scenes tissue between disparate films. The Coens have fun conjuring up winking nods to historical references points, and mimicking the style of 50’s filmmaking. (Lap dissolves, rear projection, matte paintings and more show up.) It’s in love with its pastiche, but has enough distance to maintain an aloof absurdism.
Between fun sketches of films within the film we’re treated to a stew of behind-the-scenes silliness, wacky shenanigans that find increasingly offbeat expression on their way to some head-scratching conclusions. (“Accept the mystery,” as a character from the Coen’s great, maybe greatest, work A Serious Man might say.) Hail, Caesar! is set in motion when work on said Biblical epic is thrown into jeopardy when its star (played with daffy blockheaded charm by George Clooney) is kidnapped by two devious extras intent on delivering him to a clandestine meeting of Hollywood subversives in Malibu. This is, of course, the day’s biggest problem for Brolin’s harried studio middleman, who’s fielding a job offer from an aircraft manufacture, but can’t quite shake the fun of all this show business. He tries to keep the story quiet, even as ransom notes show up and there’s a dozen other problems needing his attention. Who ever said his job was easy?
This is the Coen’s fizziest man-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown story, like the better, more downbeat, though still plenty funny, Barton Fink or Serious Man or Inside Llewyn Davis played in a major key. Brolin scurries around dealing with an unmarried ingénue (Scarlett Johansson) whose pregnancy is a problem for her innocent image, a Western star (Alden Ehrenreich) who is an awkward fit for a drawing room drama by a fancy director (Ralph Fiennes), and competitive twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) sniffing around the smell of scandal. A host of studio employees (played by the likes of Channing Tatum, Clancy Brown, Wayne Knight, and Frances McDormand, to name a few) scramble through the story, most getting a few amusing moments bouncing off Brolin’s clench-jawed determination. He’s grinding through the day, keeping total calamity at bay. Sure, a job overseeing airplane factories would be easier, but wouldn’t he miss the fun of racing around Los Angeles, dealing with all the kooks and their crisises?
In its meandering way, Hail, Caesar! takes the usual Coen delight in dialogue, peculiar turns of phrase, droll patter, looping repetition, dry sarcasm, airy eccentricities, and narrative dead-ends and cul-de-sacs. And all this, of course, serves only to reveal characters dancing over the deep abyss of uncertainty. Like a softer version of what their sharply cynical Burn After Reading did to the espionage game – turning paranoid thriller mechanics on their ear to amplify the absurdity and the impossibility of “making sense” – this film asks if cinema – with all its egos, pretentions, and petty gossip – is serious business. The answer is: not really. Show business is cut from some deeply silly cloth. But it’s no better than anyone else who claims to be doing important work – a priest, a rabbi, a pawn of the military-industrial complex, a studio stooge, a Communist. That round-up sounds like a cast list for a great joke, and that’s what the Coens try for here, staging scenes in which all the above, and more too, make themselves out to be figures of fun when they take themselves too seriously.
The film often feels slight, busy goofing around, doodling with silly details and funny performances, Roger Deakins’ brightly lit, primary color-popping cinematography letting wacky backstage antics and a variety of movie genres bleed off the backlot and into conversation with one another. But it picks up weight as it punctures windbags’ hot air and scoffs at those who are too sure they have the perfect understanding of anything – history, economics, politics, morality, you name it. Everyone’s spinning their own stories about how the world works, but their boats are easily rocked. Shouldn’t there always be room for doubt, like an actor delivering a passionate speech, but forgetting his closing line? The movies, this film seems to say, may be frivolous gossamer illusions, but isn’t anything we cling to in order to make sense of our lives? If we’re going to lose ourselves in soothing fictions, it may as well come from dazzling Technicolor fantasies lighting up the silver screen.