(Joel and Ethan Coen, USA, 2016)
The Coens, in a lighter and more exuberant mood than they've been in some time, have crafted a minor masterpiece about faith and art. But before diving in to this new film, it might be instructive to trace the broad outlines of their artistic careers. Beneath the hijinks of the Coens is a longstanding riddle: who are they, and what do they really think? For all of their boisterous antics and their willful, meticulous oddity, the Coens have always kept their cards close to the vest. A common take is that they are paragons of ironic distance, inveterate hipsters whose chief thrill is condescension. I've suspected this myself, from time to time, movie to movie.
Hail, Caesar! doesn't entirely resolve this question, but it did help clarify, for me, what might be called their aesthetic attitude. The Coens have always been filmmakers of prodigious and preternatural talent; from Blood Simple onward they have shown a facility with the tools of cinema that is nothing short of astonishing. This has permitted them to invent entire worlds, populate them with strange and indelible characters, and still withhold a great deal from the audience. What you get out of a movie by the Coens is largely a function of your own perspective; there is much to be found for the hopeful and the despairing alike, sometimes within the same movie.
Their combination of talent, scintillating intelligence, and a goofy sense of humor situates the Coens in a wholly unique place among their peers, and presents a challenge to any serious attempt to unpack their art. We know they can't be nihilists ("That must be exhausting" was the Dude's wry take on the philosophy of nothing), and yet at their most irreverent, the Coens seem to mock the very idea of meaning in art. A Serious Man was the latest example of this tendency, wherein they crafted a world that was perfectly meaningless, characters whose thin veneer of naturalism couldn't conceal their fundamental blankness, and a plot that spiraled slowly into nothing. It was a goof on late-60s suburbia and the drab, provincial Jewish community of Minnesota, but it was also a goof on Jewish religion and religion in general, not to mention physics, television, adolescence, and infidelity. A Serious Man is larded with symbols and motifs - the teeth, the rabbis, Jefferson Airplane, the Mentaculus - whose patterning, while amusing and intriguing, like wallpaper to a stoned person, is finally devoid of significance.
I'd trace this tendency back most explicitly to Barton Fink, where the titular character suffered a string of misfortunes that seemed designed explicitly to lampoon his artistic pretensions, and possibly even the notion of artistic ambition itself. This paradox - two brilliantly idiosyncratic auteurs who seem to disdain the very idea of creative ambition - has only deepened throughout their career. Their last film, the wryly bleak Inside Llewyn Davis, while not without humor and even a sliver or two of tenderness, was familiar enough in the detached circularity of its conception.
In Hail, Caesar!, the Coens (likely unintentionally) shed some light on these questions, belonging as it does to their sunnier, gentler work. It occurred to me after ruminating for a while on the film that there is a character type that they seem to admire, or at least show mercy towards, in film after film. He (or, more rarely, she) could be called the holy fool. Abby in Blood Simple, H.I. McDunnough in Raising Arizona, Norville Barnes in Hudsucker, the immortal Dude. Even Barton Fink and Larry Gopnik are variations on this theme; the difference is temperament. Those who don't take themselves, or the world, too seriously, have some hope of satisfaction. But the vain, the self-serious, and the ambitious - think Barton Fink, but also think Jerry Lundegaard - are almost certain to suffer. Hail, Caesar!'s variant on this type is Josh Brolin's Eddie Mannix. While not a fool, necessarily - he's smart and capable - he is besotted with the idea of morality, and conscientiously religious. He's thus a bit silly, especially when considering the rampant venality of the world in which he operates. He suffers genuine remorse over sneaking cigarettes and lying to his wife, but doesn't seem to scruple at lying to the tabloids or covering up all kinds of impious misbehavior. But rather than a McCarthyite, driven by personal demons to paranoia and repression, he is a kind of benevolent zealot, fundamentally caring and decent.
Structurally, the film is episodic, with the central kidnapping plot providing only a modicum of momentum. It's more of a basis for the Coens to take us on a tour of Golden Age Hollywood, with its outward opulence, moderated with a facade of propriety, and its inner turmoil, powered by pleasure, fear, and striving. Given their taste for naifs, they have a glut of material to work with, including the sub rosa organizations of Communists. All of this rolls along at a relaxed pace, with every opportunity taken to set up another pleasurably droll set piece.
And the pleasures are worth noting: the hilarious quibbling of the religious leaders that Mannix consults with; Jonah Hill's uber-loyal fall guy/notary, Alden Ehrenreich's brilliantly funny turn as the sweet and dopey Hobie Doyle, Scarlet Johanssen's fast-talking and cynical star. Brolin's Mannix is itself a remarkable role; there's a pathos to his character that provides the film with a crucial center of gravity. Brolin has rarely been this supple and this affecting; he exudes a careful balance of zing and vulnerability. Ehrenriech, also, excels in a role that's sublimely goofy but also manages to be charming. His outing with Carlotta Valdez (a lovely Veronica Osorio), a date rigged for the benefit of the press, turns out to be subtly romantic, a breeze of unalloyed joy between two people who are in over their heads but enjoying the ride.
Caesar's gentle touch, which is miles away from the chilly angst of Inside Llewyn Davis, is only rarely punctuated with any darkness, but these rare occasions are worth noting. As previously mentioned, the dealing with Communism is mostly played for laughs; the screenwriters come off as disgruntled and shallow, rather than ideologically rigorous. But there is a sense of menace to the way that their circle is summarily dispatched, especially considering the actual history, which involved scores of ruined careers and lives. The other glaring intrusion of worldly woe is in Mannix being courted by Lockheed Martin; among the military industry-rep's come-ons is a picture of a mushroom cloud, which impresses Mannix enough to utter "Armageddon." When deliberating whether he should take the job, Mannix seems largely unperturbed by the idea of working for war merchants, even though he appears to understand what it is that they do.
His decision to stay the course, re-committing himself to the grand illusions of the movies, comes across as a genuine article of faith for the Coens. When all is said and done, they are unabashed entertainers, down to the marrow. Generally, this is the most we can say about their personal feelings and convictions; while certain themes inevitably arise, and certain types of characters resurface, it is all always in aid of putting on a good show. Their lodestar, after all, is Preston Sturges, that consummate entertainer of Golden Age Hollywood, whose Sullivan's Travels (the source for the title of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?) makes for a kind of manifesto. In that film, pretensions of social consciousness and artistic purity are derided in favor of pure escapism. That's far too neat for the Coens (and even for Sturges himself), but it does indicate the general direction of their sympathies.
In light of this, it can be said that Hail, Caesar! is one of their most personal films. It posits the big-scale entertainments of cinema as a kind of secular faith - uplifting, harmless, and even capable of generating a sense of purpose in one's life, provided one doesn't take it too seriously. Like all irrational belief, its roots are entwined with silliness and absurdity, but out of them can grow work of genuine wonder. The Coens would probably never frame things in such an exalted way; even here, ending with Mannix's re-assertion of his faith, and as the last shot pans up to the heavens, we can hear them giggling. Holy fools to the end, they are never less than sincere when it comes to their audience.