The Coen Brothers' HAIL, CAESAR! - Reconsidered
A movie review by Dennis D McDonald
There's more to Hail, Caesar than meets the eye.
Many reviewers have dismissed it as a clever but second-rate Coen Brothers product. While there's universal appreciation for the individual vignettes and for the level of showcased talent, the story and overall message are usually slighted.
I beg to differ. The Brothers are doing a lot more here than lovingly portraying the now extinct movie studio system and how it ground out high- and low-brow fare like a factory. The key to understanding this is the treatment of Josh Brolin's studio exec and the comedically portrayed "communists."
The studio exec deep down 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 Brolin's character feels responsible. 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 Brolin's exec was behind them pulling strings.
The communist "conspiracy" is a more complex element. If you know about the "blacklist" and the lives that were destroyed you also know that labor organizing among writers was aserious issue. Even scientific luminaries like Oppenheimer got caught up in the witch hunts.
So why do the Coen Brothersapproach the communist subplot with such a light touch? Why use it as an object of jokes?
I think 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. Proponents of the "good old days" tend to overlook them: 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 played by George 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.
I guess I see the movie as more allegorical than most of the other reviews I have read. The Coen Brothers are playing a real balancing game here by painting the gloss and tinsel so lovingly. But in another 10 years or so all will have changed. The studio exec might very well be wishing he had taken another job, and the "communist" writers -- at least the clever ones -- will be writing TV sitcoms.
Review copyright (c) 2017 by Dennis D. McDonald