Sunday, February 7, 2016
Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels is a persistent influence on films made by the Coen Bros. O Brother Where Art Thou lifted its title from the Sturges' movie and the chain gang prelude in the Coen's invokes the ending of Sullivan's Travels in which the errant movie star is confined, and, even, tortured in work camp in the deep South. Other Coen brother's films, Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy invoked the fast-talking, blithe world of Sturges' pictures. Hail Caesar!, an affectionate tribute to the old Hollywood studios, is a version of Sullivan's Travels focusing not on the movie star who flees the set to slum with the common man (although this is an element of the movie), but instead features the travails of a secondary character in Sturges' movie, the glib, tough money-man, an over-worked and cynical executive charged with keeping the studio's various productions on-budget and on-time. As in Sullivan's Travels, a movie star absconds -- George Clooney, the star of a Ben Hur knock-off, Hail Caesar!The Story of the Christ, is drugged on the set, kidnapped, and joins a cabal of conspirators plotting against the Hollywood studio system. But in the Coen brothers' film this problem is only one of several challenges eating-away at the self-confidence of Eddie Mannix, a brash studio executive who is at the end of his tether. Mannix, played by Josh Brolin, is a familiar type -- a busy producer who makes decisions Aaron Sorkin-style while hiking from soundstage to soundstage. You've seen a thousand pictures featuring this character -- a hard-drinking workaholic surviving on cigarettes and antacid: Hail Caesar! is primarily about Mannix and his hectic efforts to keep the various films that he is supervising on track. Lockheed, that is the military industrial complex, is courting Mannix, offering him better compensation, less agony, and much more off-work family time. The film takes place across a period of a day-and-a-half, observing, as it were, something like the classical unities since everything occurs sequentially in the period of time between two midnight confessions made by Mannix to his priest, the action all revolving around the studio executive, his difficulties with the pictures that he is producing, and his temptation to leave the show-business for the profession of arms-dealing: the recruiter for Lockheed flashes at Mannix a polaroid of the H-bomb test at Bikini Atoll, telling the studio exec that this top-secret event occurred six-months earlier -- this means that the film is set in October 1954, a half-year after the Castle Bravo test. At Capitol Studios, Mannix is beset by a sea of troubles -- the leading lady in his Esther Williams' mermaid extravaganzas, played by the foul-mouthed Scarlett Johansen is pregnant with no father in sight; upper management has cast a yodeling cowboy actor as the protagonist in a drawing room comedy with predictable results; dueling twin gossip columnists threaten to expose the Studio's most important property, the dim-witted if handsome leading man, George Clooney, as a sodomite and, most bafflingly, that actor has gone missing. The film is effectively directed and, as in all Coen brothers' films, the minor roles are wonderfully realized and evocatively cast -- Coen brothers' extras and supernumerary players always have a distinctive look and the reek of real life. The movie is witty with many effective episodes, but it doesn't always exactly cohere and some strands of the complicated plot are not sufficiently developed -- the movie would be more effective as a six to eight hour mini-series in which the subplots, many of them of very interesting, could be explored in more detailed. As it stands, the film scatters its energy among the different stories and, curiously, is just a tiny bit dull -- we don't really ever get enough of any subplot to be fully engaged with it. As an example, Scarlett Johansen's character, the mermaid, is fascinating but we don't see that much of her -- and her story is resolved so swiftly, mostly off-screen, that if you leave the theater for a minute to buy a soda pop or visit the restroom, you will miss the climax of that narrative. There is a very funny conclave of pastors and priests convened to address questions of religious propriety in the Ben-Hur knock-off -- not surprisingly, the conversation devolves into theological squabbles, after the Priest notes that the gimmick of the chariot driver leaping from horse to horse seems "faky" -- that adjective very precisely chosen and redolent of my own childhood. (I have a fond spot in my heart for the Coen brothers because their films inevitably involve passages or ideas that are very close to my own childhood concerns growing up in a suburb twenty miles away from the middle-class Minneapolis enclave where they were raised.) The religious experts include an intensely argumentative rabbi who fiercely opposes everything said, but, then, when asked if he has any opinions says: "Eh? No, I don't have any opinions" -- the point being that Jewish rabbis of a certain kind are intensely contrarian and adversarial although the point is not to win an argument but merely to enjoy the debate for its own sake. Curiously, the film ends on an inspiring note that is not too far from the conclusion of several of Preston Sturges' films -- it is a noble vocation to entertain others and, after all, the show, even if absurdly difficult, must go on. The studio executive slaps George Clooney, who has slithered into a flirtation with Communism, back to his senses -- henceforth, the actor will be a reliable servant of Das Kapital, that is, Capitol Studios. Repenting of his assault on the poor, trembling actor, the hero confesses to his priest: "Forgive me, father, for I have struck a movie star." Ultimately, the Coen brothers, as shown most powerfully in Fargo and A Serious Man, are moralists and their film is didactic, an edifying entertainment about fortitude, faith, and common sense virtue. The yodeling cowboy, who can shoot a villain at 70 paces riding upside down on his horse, can't pronounce a line of drawing room chatter to save his soul -- but it doesn't matter because the cowboy is a good man and he will be awarded, perhaps, with true love, by the end of the film. The aspect of this movie most likely to make critics uneasy is the Coen brothers' approach to the blacklist and the Red scare -- as far as this film is concerned, a cadre of sinister Communist writers were in the employ of Moscow and, led by a homosexual song-and-dance man (played spectacularly by Channing Tatum) actually meet a Soviet submarine in Malibu Bay, that actor in a role resembling Gene Kelly, defecting to the Russians. The Communists are led by Dr. Herbert Marcuse, as far as I know a real person, and the film certainly, and perversely, I think, seems to endorse the idea that Hollywood was infested by cryto-Communists, at least some of them homosexual. Like the ferociously opinionated rabbi, the Coen brothers seem to want to pick a fight on these issues with other Hollywood intelligentsia -- I'm not sure that they endorse all of Tailgunner Joe's theories about the Communist conspiracy, but, at least, the evidence of their apparent acceptance of some of his more lurid theories is visible, on the screen for all to behold. Furthermore, the movie betrays, I think, more than a little evidence of standard issue Christian piety, also a peculiar trait in a film made by these ultra-hip Jewish directors, but, I think, characteristic of the fundamentally moral and didactic aspects of their best films. (Many of the Coen's best films involve a strange issue of iconoclasm -- the prohibition upon depicting the divine and there are allusions to this topic in the film: when Saul is confronted by the blaze of light that converts him to Christianity, the incomplete film cuts to a title "Image of Divine Presence"; at the end of the film, a character looks to the sky where a water tower is labeled "BEHOLD" to see nothing but an empty heaven full of light.) Hail Caesar! is not one of the Coen brothers best films by any means, but it is diverting, clever, and contains several wonderful parodies of films made in the mid-fifties and, viewed in the context of their larger work, is very interesting in its development of themes important to this writer-director team.