‘Would That It T’were So Simple’
by Jack Simons
Hail Caesar! – A movie set in 1951 – describes 24 hours in the life of a major Hollywood studio. The film that came from the mysterious Coen brothers’ universe has returned to its source without drawing many viewers, and according to Rotten Tomatoes 55 percent of the audience that showed up didn’t like the film.
Most said: “I didn’t understand it.”
Perhaps they must be forgiven, for as John Podhoretz wrote in The Weekly Standard: “Hail Caesar! is one of the most sophisticated satires ever made . . . But unless you are fully conversant with legendary tales of showbiz miscreancy and the weird behavior of Stalinist screenwriters and the theories of the New Left philosopher Herbert Marcuse, I fear much of what is brilliant about Hail Caesar! will elude you.”
It’s complicated to respond to the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, because while all accept that a film review is reductionist, most analyses of the Coens are hopelessly reductionist, or so wrong-headed one must believe that two films of the same title have been put out simultaneously.
With the exception of The Ladykillers, any three of the lesser Coen Brothers’ films would assure a film-maker’s reputation for all times. The greater films – Blood Simple, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, True Grit, and now Hail Caesar! – place them in a category by themselves.
The brothers may not bring to their pictures the same goals that John Huston or John Ford brought to their films. Watching unadulterated Coen brothers’ projects can sometimes be confusing, since from film to film one can’t be sure whether one is watching a story in the sense that Homer’s Iliad is a story, or an elaborate psychology/philosophy experiment, or some kind of trip through a teenager’s fantasy of what he thought, said, or wanted to do to his hated Latin teacher.
In Miller’s Crossing they gave us a Marvel comic-book version of Dashiell Hammett. Barton Fink, seems to be an extended nightmare about writer’s block. Inside Llewyn Davis breaks every rule of storytelling going back to the book of Genesis – the main character starts off bad and is redeemed by getting worse – he even kills the cat.
Hail Caesar! is a Kabbalistic romp through a labyrinth of insider jokes, ironies, intellectual double-entendres, historical minutia, and, no doubt, many things I missed. I’m not claiming to have mapped the labyrinth nor to have penetrated the Kabbalistic entendres. I did, however, spend most of the film in gleeful convulsion (though sometimes all but alone).
There is much to laugh at:
- Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, the toughest studio executive in Hollywood, in the confessional at 4 a.m. because he lied to his wife about smoking.
- A daily rush from Hail Caesar – the movie inside the movie – showing the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus followed by a film editor’s note: “insert presence of divine being.”
- Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle a singing cowboy – his own stuntman – who the moguls move to a drawing room drama where the women wear $5,000 gowns. He can’t say his lines – he can’t even get through the drawing-room door. Ralph Fiennes plays the European director who must teach the cowboy to speak English: “Would that it t’were so simple.” The scene steals the movie.
- In the water ballet sequence a whale surfaces – a play on movie special effects. While still under water the whale is plainly a bowling pin that changes to whale color as it breaks the surface – I alone laughed at the sight.
- George Clooney, the star of the Roman epic Hail Caesar, is kidnapped by a cabal of communist writers who identify themselves as “The Future” – a joke in itself.
Because of the sanctification of Hollywood’s Stalinist writers – who no one, including the writers themselves, denies were members of the communist party– the Coen brothers open themselves to all kinds of attack. So far critics have tread lightly on the choice, but sooner or later they will realize how much the movie is open season on “The Future.”
–The communists serve cucumber sandwiches for their meeting – cucumber sandwiches were on the menu in The Importance of Being Earnest.
–The most angry and irritated of the communist writers resembles pictures of the recently lionized Dalton Trumbo.
–Their leader is named John Howard Hermann – a play on the name of John Howard Lawson, the author of Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Screenwriting. A large portion of Lawson’s book for wannabe screen writers explains the necessity of Marxist thought in dramatic writing.
–Gurney, himself, in a total plot non-sequitur must defect to the Soviet Union from his Malibu mansion to a Russian submarine.
–Clooney’s character threatens “to name names” – the phrase associated with those who cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee.
–The communists in turn threaten to expose his homosexuality.
–The deepest joke in the communist scenes is the boat ride to transfer Gurney to the Soviet submarine. The Coens could have chosen any kind of boat – a kayak would have done the job. They chose a multi-oared rowboat about the size of Henry VIII’s barge. The choice allowed the image of the communist writers rowing in unison like a crew of galley slaves.
I leave out many funny scenes, many wonderful actors, including Heather Goldenhersh who plays Mannix’s super-efficient, long-suffering secretary.
The film has so far made back double its investment. I suspect that, like many Coen brothers’ films, it will continue to make money as its mettle slowly dawns on the elect for whom it was intended. I will help by giving the movie as Christmas presents for years to come.