Thursday, February 25, 2016

'Hail, Caesar!' Is Frothy, Fun, and Ideologically Alarming


I will openly admit it: I'm a sucker for movies about Hollywood. Well, not just movies about Hollywood in general, but movies about Old Hollywood, with the glitz and glamour and dark seedy underbelly. I love movies that take a long hard look at the Studio System and examine how it was amazing for creative production and awful for the creators themselves. How this exploitative management and company style created some of the best works of our our culture can boast. I think it's fascinating and I love thinking about the social implications of that.

Hail, Caesar! is a lot less interested than I am in these social implications. That doesn't mean it's a bad movie, exactly, just that if you're looking for a hard-hitting examination of corruption and abuse in a system designed to keep actors, directors, and writers disenfranchised, you should probably just watch Sunset Boulevard again. If, however, you want to see a bunch of famous actors chew the scenery and have fun playing out Old Hollywood stereotypes for two hours, then you're in luck and this is just the movie for you.

Get where I'm going with this?

The most recent film from the alarmingly prolific Coen brothers, Hail, Caesar! is a frothy confection of nostalgia and actors playing against type. It follows a studio executive, Mr. Mannix (Josh Brolin), on about two days of his work on the job, and the joke of the movie seems to be that these aren't really the worst or the best days Mannix has had. In fact, they're pretty normal, all things considered. That's a big part of the joke: as ridiculous as everything that happens is, no one really acts like it's over the top or earth-shattering. It's just another day in the studio system and another normal day for Mr. Mannix.

Allow me to explain. The day starts with Mannix driving to a house and dragging away a movie star who's been caught taking "French postcards" before the police can get to her. He coaches her on her story, diffuses any potential law enforcement involvement and goes back on his merry way. Later we see him setting up at his office, dealing with all the various problems of the day. The studio head, Mr. Skank, needs to shift out casting on a drawing room drama and thinks their resident Western star, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), should take over as leading man.

Meanwhile, filming is wrapping up on the studio's big new gamble, a biblical epic called, you guessed it, Hail, Caesar! It stars their biggest actor, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), and is super close to coming out and making them a ton of money. All Mannix has to do is keep the production on track and get approval from a panel of religious experts. Oh, and their big aquatics star, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), needs to get married and soon because she's pregnant and the studio is banking on her wholesome image. Got all that?

Obviously everything goes all to hell, starting when Baird Whitlock is kidnapped by a group that calls themselves "The Future". The Future demands a hefty ransom, which the studio is happy to pay, and Mannix now has to deal with keeping shooting going on the studio's biggest picture while trying to track down their biggest star. This is all while he's being hounded by a pair of twin gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton). Plus he's trying to decide whether or not to take a generous job offer to go work a normal job for Lockheed and leave Hollywood behind.

It's a pretty stuffed movie, and that's not even mentioning the appearances by Channing Tatum and Ralph Fiennes and Jonah Hill and Frances McDormand. Everyone involved in making this is clearly having a ball of a time, and I'll totally grant that the story, while thin, is fun and engaging enough to keep you invested.

Mannix can't call in any big guns to find Baird Whitlock, mostly because he can't admit he lost Hollywood's biggest star. But he does find an unexpected ally in Hobie Doyle, who might not be much of a dramatic actor (and the scenes where he tries to go from rodeo trick Western star to serious actor are earnest and adorable and painfully bad) but is a fantastic human being. Hobie ends up being the one to bust the whole story wide open, which is great, but overall you kind of don't care what the answers to the mysteries actually are. It's more incidental to all the fun.

I should point out, though, that the trailers make it seem like this movie is one big heist film where the studio uses its actors to find Baird Whitlock and it's all screwball and everyone working together. It's not. Most of these storylines don't intersect, which isn't bad, it's just disappointing if you go in expecting everything to fit together like an elegant puzzle. This is more a mood piece than anything else.

Okay - the big highlights. Alden Ehrenreich is phenomenal as the soft-spoken Hobie Doyle, and it's impressive that in a movie with this many huge stars, the person who totally steals the show is arguably the least well-known. Hobie Doyle is a former rodeo performer, an actor who does all his own stunts, including rope tricks and handstands on moving horses, and yet finds himself baffled by the concept of a stuffy drawing room drama where his character is supposed to be "rueful" and "nonchalant". His earnest attempts to do what director Laurence Laurantz (Ralph Fiennes) is asking of him are adorable and heartbreaking, and a great example of how the studio system made its stars without paying much attention to the people behind them.

Oh and there's a scene where he's set up on a studio-mandated date with Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio) and they have the sweetest conversation about their respective talents. He demonstrates rope tricks and she shows him how to dance with something on her head. It's a sweet moment between two genuinely lovely people that demonstrates the skill-level and heart behind what we now consider cheesy, stupid movies.

Another highlight is Scarlett Johansson's turn as DeeAnna Moran, an actress who everyone loves for her sweet and pure mermaid movies, but who in real life is a foul-mouthed Jersey girl who runs through marriages like she runs through cigarettes. Her most recent fling has left her pregnant and single, and it's not like they can get her back together with either of her exes - one of them was a high-ranking mobster. The studio has to manage her image and make her appear squeaky-clean, and the solution they end up finding is both ingenious and completely insane. So, it's a fun story.

Frances McDormand also shows up in exactly one scene as an experienced film editor who can flip a reel in seconds but can't remember not to wear a scarf in the editing room. It's hilarious and way too short.

I mean, the whole movie is full of little vignettes like this, moments that are funny and revealing about Old Hollywood. The shots they give us of the in-film version of Hail, Caesar! are ridiculous and amazing by turns, reminding us that some of those old sword and sandals epics were actually really good. 

The musical number from some movie about sailors in the Navy both admirably displays Channing Tatum's tap-dancing skills and also reminds us of the fun of unabashed movie musicals. And all the behind the scenes drama is delicious if you, like me, really enjoy seeing the seedy underbelly behind all the glamour.

But.

The problem with this film is that you can't really make a two-hour blockbuster out of vignettes. While these asides and peeks are fun and interesting, they're not a story, and the overarching narrative that Hail, Caesar! is trying to weave here just isn't all that good. I mean it's fine, I guess, but not spectacular. 

Baird Whitlock is kidnapped by communists who want to tear down the studio system and also get paid for their work because as it turns out all the communists are actually screenwriters. They hold Whitlock at a fancy house in Malibu only for us to be shocked by the real owner when he finally shows up. There's a Russian submarine at one point.

The whole thing is cheesy and screwball, sure, but it's also frustratingly simplistic. We don't really ever know how Mannix figured out the bad guys' plans, nor do we understand what precisely was supposed to be happening. But that's not my real problem with this plotline.

My big issue here is how the film sets up the communists as ridiculous fall-guys, a bunch of bitter writers who are just pissy they don't get paid enough and so have decided to work for Mother Russia. When Baird Whitlock comes back spouting Marxist theory about the subjection of workers and how the studio is keeping them all enslaved, Mannix ends up slapping the shit out of him and telling him to go out there and do his job. 

The problem here is that, well, the communists aren't wrong. If we learn anything from this movie it's that, yeah, the studio system really is exploiting its workers. All we have to do is look back in Hollywood history to know that to be absolutely true. No one was confused about it at the time either. Actors and directors had to sign draconian exclusivity contracts and were traded around like chattel. They didn't pick their own projects or even their own images. Everything was controlled by and owned by the studio. 

We see this most clearly with Hobie, who is pulled off of working on a Western he clearly likes in order to be in a movie he doesn't understand because "the studio is changing his image." As simple as that. They're telling him what work to do, what to wear, and who to date because they very literally control his life.

And this, the movie insists, is all right and fine and exactly as it should be. By the end of the movie Mannix feels justified in what he's done and satisfied with his work because he's a good man doing a good thing making good movies. He's righteous in his defense of the studio because the studio is always right. Implicitly, this movie is telling us that things were better when the workers really had no rights and everyone just shut up and let the studio make their choices for them.

Obviously I have a problem with this. The implicit messages of this movie praise the studio system for being a time when everything was simple and clear and easy. When white men were in charge, basically. Now, if this feels like I'm reading too much into it, let's bear in mind that the reason we can assume these implications is because Mannix is the lead character of our film. He's the eyes with which we view this world. He's even explicitly shown to be a moral, kind, good man. He's a devout Catholic, a loving husband and father, and an upright person who always tries to do the right thing. So if he's on the side of the studio, then so should we, right?

In fact everyone in this movie who doesn't side with the studio is shown to be stupid, corrupt, or immoral. Seriously. Hobie Doyle, the sweetest specialest snowflake and basically a walking representation of truth and righteousness? Completely on board with the studio even though they make him do things he doesn't want to do. Baird Whitlock, womanizing alcoholic who no one cares enough about to report missing? Falls easily for Marxist theory until he's told basically not to bite the hand that feeds him. It's alarmingly simplistic and presents the view that people who uphold the status quo are good and people who don't are bad. Plain and simple.

This is without even getting into how the film completely excludes narratives about the actual marginalized people in Hollywood at this period. The only character of color in the film, Carlotta Valdez, is only in a handful of scenes and while she's lovely, she has no storyline of her own. She's just the date Hobie is supposed to take to his movie premiere.That's it. 

There are scant few women in the movie, but the lack of people of color, even in minor roles, is glaring. Hollywood has never been as white as it pretends to be in this movie, and it adds a disturbing twist to this nostalgic fantasy about the good old days when white men were in charge, everyone did what they said, and people of color just didn't exist.

But maybe I'm being too hard on this film. It is, after all, a screwball comedy about silly actors doing silly things and acting like the fate of the world rests on their shoulders. From that perspective, it doesn't have to be a searing indictment of exploitation in the McCarthy era.

The reason I'm harping on this movie, then, is because I feel like it reflects a dangerous trend in our culture right now. We seem ever more interested in revisiting our own past and being nostalgic for the "good old days" because, it seems, we white Americans want to remember a time when we could just ignore the struggles of people of color and other marginalized groups. It's like this is a collective fantasy about the time before we all had to admit America has a race problem. The 1950s were hellish for most everyone in our country, and yet we insist on portraying it as the best time to be alive, because it was...for white men.

And before the internet bites me, I'm not saying that white men are inherently evil. I'm just saying that there's something really sketchy in dreaming out loud about returning to the days when you were the only ones in power and everyone else was labor to be exploited. Those weren't the good old days for anyone but you, and I think you're enjoying not thinking about that.

So, sure, go see Hail, Caesar! if you want two hours of popcorn fluff. But remember that this is apparently what the Coen brothers wish Hollywood could be like: a world where they don't have to share power, where no one calls them out on how they never cast actors of color in their movies, and where they can just tell everyone what to do and if the people disagree then they're awful Commies. Mmm. Nice world, huh?

I will say that I'm okay with excuses to see Scarlett Johansson exercising her New Jersey accent though.

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