aNewDomain — There’s more to Hail, Caesar! than meets the eye.
Now available on HBO-Go and other streaming systems, Hail, Caesar! received lukewarm reviews when it first came out early last year. Most film critics dismissed this all-star comedy, which follows a day in the life of a studio fixer during Hollywood’s golden age. They universally appreciated its individual vignettes and the casting of powerhouses like Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes and Scarlett Johansson, but slighted the story and its overall message.
That was a mistake.
The Coen Brothers are doing a lot more with Hail, Caesar! than just lovingly portraying a now extinct movie studio system and how it ground out high- and low-brow fare like a factory.
The key to understanding this is its treatment of studio exec Eddie Mannix (Brolin) and the comedically portrayed so-called “communists.”
Deep down, Mannix believes in what he does. We may now turn up our noses at what we see portrayed here movie-wise but there’s undeniably a lot of craft being demonstrated and this is a character who feels responsible for it all.
The production houses of that era did produce a lot of schlock. But they occasionally produced some gems as well. Rest assured that someone like the Mannix character was behind them pulling strings all the way.
The communist “conspiracy” is a more complex element to consider. If you know about the “blacklist” and the lives that were destroyed you also know that labor organizing among writers was a serious issue.
Even scientific luminaries like Oppenheimer got caught up in the witch hunts, you know.
So why do the Coen Brother approach the communist subplot with such a light touch? And why did they use it as an object of jokes?
I say it’s because they’re approaching everything here with a light touch that is intended to reflect the unrealistic and gauzy view that so many people still have of the 1950s.
There were some serious issues bubbling in American society at the time. Today’s proponents of the “good old days” tend to overlook such issues as racism, polio, women losing labor force gains made during World War II, the onset of the Cold War and, soon, the Korean War.
Not a fun list.
Movie studios were trying to keep it all together in the face of all this, plus TV would soon drastically reduce movie attendance.
Yet here are the silly communists spouting the same dialectical nonsense that was popularized by so many – back in the 1920s and 1930s!
Listen to their dialogue. That the doofus actor Baird Whitlock (Clooney ) falls for it is the best tip off that the tweed wearing and pipe smoking writers may have real grievances but their grasp of reality is lacking. Their philosophical musings about labor and capital are just as outmoded as the studio system.
Yet neither side comprehends the change.
Bottom line: Hail, Caesar! is a lot more allegorical than most of the other reviews I’ve seen. The Coen Brothers are playing a real balancing game here by painting the gloss and tinsel so lovingly.
In another 10 years or so all that will have changed. The studio exec might very well be wishing he had taken another job. As for the “communist” writers, at least the clever ones, they’d be writing TV sitcoms.
I highly recommend this film.
For aNewDomain, I’m Dennis D. McDonald.
An earlier version of this column ran at Dennis D. McDonald’s DDMCD site. Read it here. -Ed.
Here’s Universal’s official trailer for Hail, Caesar! Check it out.
Trailer, cover and inside images: Universal Studios, All Rights Reserved.