Hail, Caesar!

I was thinking…

…we are creatures strangely subject to nostalgia. As important as it is to look to our future, our past is not only something that defines us as individuals and as cultures, it is also something to which we look for guidance.

If you’re thinking, Umm, I don’t know about that, then I ask: how many of you read a book to your children that you had read when you were a child, all because it had taught you some memorable moral? Why do you surround yourself with mementos of your hard work, like trophies or diplomas? How many of you recognize looming problems because you remember a similar trial from history?

See? Guidance.

Although a common complaint about films nowadays is there are no new stories being told, the public often flocks to them in droves, nonetheless. Why? Because they either make us feel comfortable, they make us feel nostalgic, or they teach us a lesson something in us yearns to re-learn.

The Coen Brothers, Ethan and Joel, have a long history of telling diverse stories, covering a variety of genres, but they sew common threads through all their pictures: humanity is displayed in all its frailties and some sort of moral is woven within the folds of each tale’s dark humor.

Their most recent story, Hail, Caesar!, sticks to their modus operandi while looking to the nostalgic past of Hollywood’s golden age for a bit of nostalgia as well.

A movie within a movie, Hail Caesar! revolves around the production of the film Hail, Caesar!–A Tale of the Christ. More accurately, it revolves around Capitol Pictures studio production head Eddie Mannix (Josh BrolinTrue Grit) and his efforts to keep the production on track whilst juggling the other films being produced and the problems and scandals created by the films’ stars.

The major problem arises when a group of screenwriters kidnaps the star of Hail, Caesar!, Baird Whitlock (George ClooneyTomorrowland). Holding him for ransom, the writers–all communists–try to coerce Whitlock into joining their cause.

Mannix, meanwhile, has to cover up a swimming star’s (Scarlett JohannsonThe Avengers) impending out-of-wedlock pregnancy, transition a singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) into a high society film, dodge the tabloid twins (Tilda Swinton) and ponder a career change to Lockheed at the height of the Hydrogen Bomb age.

The 1950’s, often referred to as part of the golden era of Hollywood, appeared so shiny because the filth was constantly being swept under the rug or potential troublemakers were being forced out during the second great Red Scare. Although criticized by film professors and coffee house patrons as lacking any true edge, the 1940’s to late 50’s were still a breeding ground for some of what are still considered the best films of all time.

One such film is William Wyler’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1959), upon which Hail, Caesar! is unabashedly based. Although turning the production into something more farcical, the Coens indulge in the beautifully shot, richly colored and golden limned era by shooting the entire film as if it were, itself, a picture made during the golden age.

Cheeks are not without firmly ensconced tongues, as the brothers poke at nearly every aspect of filmmaking–made all the more ironic, considering the presenters of such a display are two of the most lauded filmmakers of the current era. But the humor is often subtle: a sideways glance at a bubbling fish tank; or irritatingly blatant: a cowboy’s drawling attempts to sound like a refined Englishman. And some are just plain in your face–or rather, in Channing Tatum’s face.

We are reminded, however, of the dangers of casting one person to play twins, as Tilda Swinton portrays two feuding sisters, one who speaks in an English accent and the other an American. Swinton’s so-called American sister soon slips from her accent and it is difficult to tell whether this was done on purpose or was simply accidental.

Acting miscues aside, there is also the question of casting. Anyone who regularly follows the Ammo Dump reviews or listens to my show knows I hold no love for the aforementioned Tatum. But for once, he was kept within his wheelhouse: dancing with other men and, thankfully, not speaking much. Herein lies another typical Hollywood move, lovingly jabbed at by the Coens. Tatum is given top billing for the film and yet what you see of him in the trailers is about all he does in the whole picture. No more. Another tongue-in-cheek move? Who knows.

The Coens also seem to delight in symbolism or repeated motifs. Mannix continually looks at his watch, to reflect the clockwork precision he wishes to instill upon his chaotic job and environment. Every time he looks at the watch, it is exactly at the top of the hour, but when control starts to slip from his grasp and he questions his future at the studio, the minute hand moves further from the perfect pointing-to-12 position.

The singing cowboy’s line, “Would that it were so simple,” in the high society piece is also reflective of Mannix’ predicament. “If something is easy, does that mean it’s wrong?” is a question he poses in confession later in the film.

During an era when the film industry was worried about its own future due to the advent of television and the government forced divestiture of studio vertical integration, Mannix sees his constant juggling act at the studio as a way to grow. It is Mannix’ desire to challenge himself and, therefore, better himself that gives Hail, Caesar! its heart and the moral center we still look for in the films and stories of our past.

Ammo Dump rating: 8 out of 10 ransom notes

I’ll talk more about this film and others during my radio show (a new regular time will be forthcoming). Listen in on WJBC-AM1230 in Central Illinois. For the rest of the world, listen on WJBC.com. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @ALphaEXray.

Hail, Caesar!
Rated PG-13
Run time: 106 minutes

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