Hail, Caesar! (USA, 2016)

hail-caesar-posterDirected by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Of course, it goes without saying that each new Coen Brothers movie is a special occasion that I look forward to very much, and they’re some of the only filmmakers whose work I consider basically a must-see when it comes out in theatres. It’s not that I considered the cinematography to be sublimely beautiful on a campy, postmodern homage to classic Hollywood—even though it’s Roger Deakins, this is not No Country For Old Men, you know what I mean? You could easily see this on a TV or iPad (or even on an airplane, god forbid). The thing is, I really couldn’t wait to see it! And at this point in their career, they could easily get what I will (glibly and quickly without too much sidetracking) call Woody Allen syndrome, in the sense that they’re filmmakers that everyone wants to work with, so they churn out a new film every year or two years (a rate better than most established rock bands, and trust me, it takes waaaaay less effort and resources to put out a good rock album than it does to make a fucking movie), and every film has a list of A-list stars and you can’t wait to see how they’re going to act in this film. But in this analogy, the big difference between the Coens and Woody Allen (other than, you know…), is the fact that even though they seem to come back to the same kinds of themes and character types, each movie feels utterly fresh, instead of a single prototype film where the enjoyment comes only in seeing the minor variation from who plays the middle-aged male lead and who plays the twenty-something female lead. Of course the Coens do “serious” drama and “whacky” comedy, but even in the latter category, you put this film, Big Lebowski, and Burn After Reading in a police lineup, and you’re going to be able to tell them apart. And what makes their output so interesting to me is how all of their films, from Barton Fink to A Serious Man to Fargo to Llewyn Davis all have an interest in the powerlessness of individuals in a meaningless vacuum of a universe, and their attempt to find simple, straightforward meaning, usually with tragicomic consequences. What I didn’t really pick up on, even though it’s so obvious, was that other great, longstanding, and again, obvious recurring theme in the Coen filmography: the work of the artist and the value of human expression in a cold, calculating, capitalist system based on dollar value. I thought that with Serious Man they hit the nail on the head for all of the questions of nihilism, meaning, the hapless shmoe of a protagonist hopelessly bouncing from one external circumstances to another. Then with Llewyn Davis, they get into that as well, presenting the emergence of Bob Dylan as some godlike force of nature, like the tornado at the end of Serious Man, something to make all of his efforts meaningless, but they also get more explicit with the other stuff, the hilarious and heartbreaking line from F. Murray Abraham (“I don’t see a lot of money in it”). And though it’s been a while since I’ve seen Barton Fink, I’m going to go on a limb and say that this film, Hail, Caesar!, is the first time the Coens actually mention capitalism by name, or introduce any remote critique of it in any way. Even here, it only exists because there’s a cabal of secret nerdy Hollywood communist screenwriters who kidnap the A-list star (George Clooney) and try to drill into his head what the parody of 1950’s society in the film would call “commie propaganda” but which today just sounds like pretty straightforward stuff. This is the thing with this film, and with all of their films—both sides are absurd, both are laughable, and you can’t really put a thumb on where the filmmakers sit on the issue, because that’s not the point of the film. Clooney is a big dummy for parroting all of this first-year junior Marxism, reflecting on the absurd wish-fulfillment and ideological deception of Hollywood spectacles, but Brolin is a 2-dimensional cartoon of Joe Friday all-American patriotism when he insists that Clooney’s wrong, that the movies are valuable and people work hard and they need their fantasies to sustain through this life, etc. What we’re left with is not any firm conclusion on any of life’s big questions, but we feel that sense of bewilderment in the face of the absurdity of those questions, as we do in Barton Fink, Fargo, A Serious Man, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Inside Llewyn Davis, No Country For Old Men, and all of their films for that matter. But in the meantime, we get a lot of great laughs. I’m getting to that part pretty late, but that’s the other big reason why I rush out to see Coen comedies—they’re funny! I usually avoid modern Hollywood comedies like the plague because they’re awful, but the Coens make movies that actually inspire laughter, and laughter feels very good. Go figure. And on top of it, in this film, there’s a sense of unabashed fun that’s usually not on display, as the Coens hop from classic 50’s genre to classic 50’s genre, and do each with such a loving eye. The cheesy Western looks spot-on, the incredible synchronized swimming mermaid bit with Scarlett Johansson is incredible, and the tap-dance routine with Channing Tatum is really impressive too! (Even if, spoiler, he didn’t actually tap.) I wasn’t super hot on Burn After Reading, and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Raising Arizona or Oh Brother Where Art Thou? but this movie was honestly the most fun I’ve had at a movie in a long, long time.

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One response to “Hail, Caesar! (USA, 2016)

  1. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2016 | Offhand Reviews·

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