God’s Country: The Coen Brothers confront faith and cinema in ‘Hail, Caesar!’

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There’s an exhilarating combination of empathy and contempt in “Hail, Caesar!,” the latest comic concoction from Joel and Ethan Coen.

Immersed in the day-to-day of a Hollywood studio in the 1950s, the film follows the travails of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a “fixer” tasked with holding his looney actors in-check and keeping their scandals out of the press. In some instances, he’s an object of derision for the Coen Brothers: a man who quietly buries truths and enthusiastically promotes lies. But in others he’s an admired figure, manufacturing a sense of harmony behind-the-scenes to keep the wonders shown on-screen untainted, and open for full embrace.

Mannix’s main situation in need of “fixing” is the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a mega-star heading up a “Ben-Hur”-style epic titled “Hail Caesar.” A league of communist writers holds the dopey Whitlock for ransom, all but converting him in the process, while Mannix is left to hunt for his missing star and deal with a series of smaller crises along the way.

Even for the Coen Brothers, this structure makes for a disorienting, destabilizing and decentralized work. One that places Hollywood gloss and blind faith side-by-side in an effort not to instruct or satirize, but to search. Through methods equally absurd, heartfelt and dramatic, the film meditates on notions of enlightenment and escapism.

“Hail, Caesar!” is not quite madcap, like “Burn After Reading” or “The Big Lebowski,” but it’s not somber, either. Its formal and thematic bases are more ambitious and, perhaps, less sturdy. There’s undeniably too much going on here – cinematic homages, send-ups of classic actors, caper side-plots, lectures on communism, ruminations on religion – but that seems entirely the point. This is an overstuffed love letter to the movies – to the act of falling into an epic fantasyland or a musical fantasia for a few hours and checking reality at the door.

It’s unfortunate, then, that the movie tends to drag its feet. Though riddled with references and imbued with a strong sense of purpose, “Caesar!” is often too disjointed to really click beyond its spurts of brilliance. Its best moments, which include great physical performances from Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson and breakout Alden Ehrenreich, don’t tie the film together in any significant way; they’re interludes instead, building in nostalgic contrast with the reflexive critique that drives the central plot.

“Hail, Caesar!” builds by juxtaposing its characters’ true selves and constructed personas. In one revealing discussion, Mannix undermines the desire of two gossip columnists (rivaling twins, both played by the great Tilda Swinton) to break a scandalous story on the past relationship between Whitlock and Olivier-modeled director Laurence Laurentz (a sublime Ralph Fiennes). He questions the social impact of such journalism, challenging the women to consider what it means to dismantle an illusion that evokes warmth and positivity.  

These conversations, too talky and played a little too straight, are indicative of the consistent problem that “Hail, Caesar!” runs into: the Coens strain to have their cake and eat it too, to build a farce out of a determined, even melancholic method of inquiry. It’s a dramatically challenging balance that the filmmakers only occasionally pull off.

Yet it’s exceptional when they do. There’s a scene in which a newly-“educated” Whitlock sits down with Mannix and rattles off some communist propaganda; the ensuing back-and-forth is rich with both surprising wisdom and, given Whitlock’s limited intellectual capacity, gleeful absurdity. Later, on-camera, he’s in the midst of delivering a speech so stirring about God and goodness and all things profound that he practically reels the audience in – until he forgets the most important word, “Faith,” to cap his monologue off. There’s the penetrating reminder: he’s just there to read his lines.

There’s an embedded critique in “Hail, Caesar!,” from pregnancy scares that turn actresses into symbols, to questions of sexuality that are buried to preserve “traditional” conceptions of masculinity. The film acknowledges that what we perceive on-screen may not be so, but ultimately argues that moviegoing isn’t always about knowing what’s what.

“Hail, Caesar!” never generates the momentum it needs to; it never gets into a solid groove, wherein a pacing issue or two could easily be forgiven and forgotten. Indeed, even if intentional, the movie is too busy – it jumps around so chaotically that its ideas and revelations lack crucial staying power. But its reckoning with sin and artificiality remains effective, and in an appropriately existential context.

The film begins and ends with Mannix stomping his grounds. He navigates his way through concrete lots, bordered by cathedrals of studio spaces and prop warehouses, and waves to the legends within them, icons made up of myth and imagination. Mannix’s Hollywood is where the sun shines down. It’s where the stories live on. It’s legitimized by believers and emboldened by skeptics.

It’s God’s Country.




“Hail, Caesar!” is now playing at Regal Hollywood 20 and Lakewood Ranch Cinemas.


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