The Coen Brothers latest comedy “Hail, Caesar!” opened in theaters on February 5.
The Coen Brothers, Ethan and Joel, have been making giggling, dark movies ever since they got into the business. I first ran into this when the two cast Holly Hunter and Nicolas Cage in the goofy picture “Raising Arizona,” which depicts a recently released from prison convenient store thief and his demanding ex-policewoman wife, who kidnap a child, because they cannot have one of their own.
Even prior to “Raising Arizona” the sibling team broke into the big time in 1984 with an attempt at comedic film noir with “Blood Simple,” which was considered gruesome and very funny at times.
Funny and shocking, of course, are odd bedfellows as is the idea of lurking about the shady side of life trying to find a laugh. For the Coen brothers, this has lead to some surrealistic films, like the commercially successful “Brother, Where Art Thou,” and “Barton Fink,” which dipped into the horror mode. With this in mind, the pair, who write and direct most of their films, favor unlikely, non-glamorous actors, such as Joel’s wife Francis McDormand and, in the case of “Hail, Caesar!” Tilda Swinton, Jonah Hill and Ralph Fiennes, who appear along side Scarlett Johansson, who plays an Esther-Williams-type actress, George Clooney, who plays an affable movie star (who gets kidnapped) and Josh Brolin, who plays Eddie Mannix, a go-to guy for a big production movie studio named Capitol Pictures.
As you can imagine, the Coen brothers love seedy private detectives in fedoras and wide ties and kidnappings, the later of which occurs in many of their films. Need somebody snatched? Try watching “Blood Simple,” “Raising Arizona,:” “Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski,” or “Hail, Caesar!” A kidnapping is bread and butter for the Coens.
“Hail, Caesar!” shows another side of the Coen brothers that is consistent: Lofty ambitions. These guys aim high. The film, set in Hollywood in the 1940s or early 1950s, depicts the kidnapping of a mega-star, but the actions is viewed through the eyes of Eddie Mannix, who has other problems on his plate. He is trying to quit smoking, a young star in one movie does not know how to act and one of his stars is pregnant and needs a husband quick. It’s Mannix’s job to coddle stars, solve problems, run errands and burying scandals. You know the type. These guys were like hoods with day jobs. They got a lot done and preferred you didn’t ask a lot of questions about it.
The trick to “Hail, Caesar!” lies in tying together the kidnapping with several other non-sequential problems Mannix is trying to solve. Unfortunately, this means giving all the problems about equal weight, as if the kidnapping were just as important as teaching a cowboy singer to say his lines.
The kidnapping in “Hail, Caesar!” never rises to a very high level of importance, anyway. It turns out that the kidnappers are a group of 15 intellectuals who are just trying to make a point — about economics, no less. But, even though it is the center of the picture, the kidnapping is so unimportant the kidnappers casually introduce themselves to their victim, movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) and, in the end, Whitlock just drives home of his own volition the next day, as if the kidnappers just got bored of the whole thing. It turns out, boredom is contagious. I, too, found the anticlimax in this case too effective for its own good.
More than boring, it was a bit unsettling to find out that the kidnappers turn out to a group of studio writers, who all happen to be communists. The group complain about their pay, but not as a
personal issue — they are all well dressed and well fed — but as an matter of principle. In the end, they simply give the ransom money away. That handsome leather briefcase full of cash, we already know, came from a petty spending fund at the movie studio — called Capitol Pictures. So, it was no particular sweat for Mannix to raise the money, either.
However, as mentioned above, I found it unsettling for the film to pivot on the point that these 15 (or so) bright, well-dressed script writer/kidnappers were communists set in the same year that the film “Trumbo” came out concerning blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo (played by Bryan Cranston), whose career suffered horribly by being blacklisted from 1946 to 1960 – and all for the cruelty of McCarthyism.
Maybe I just didn’t get the joke, but McCarthyism censorship was a direct assault on Hollywood script writers back in the day, so why this would be funny for Hollywood went right past me.
The bottom line: “Hail, Caesar!” is a flat-footed comedy with great set pieces that didn’t know what it wanted to say. The characters are memorable. The movie, it turns out, is not.