Friday, June 10, 2016

'Hail, Caesar!': Silliness as a Virtue

I used to think that Joel and Ethan Coen were incapable of giving us a truly cerebral film, by which I am paying them a compliment. They came very close to proving me wrong in Miller’s Crossing, which like all cerebral films assumed that we knew everything, or rather almost everything, about what it is its characters were mumbling about. It was a triumph of form over matter, of technique over content, and not surprisingly I ended up disliking it. But the problem with that film was the great thing about almost all their other work: you still get idiosyncratic dialogues you don’t have a clue about, you have subplots that go nowhere, and above all, you have a narrative that you think you know but which seems to tease you, in the end, when it teeters off wildly. In their other work, all that was fun. Or at least used to be.

Hail, Caesar! is the inevitable successor to Burn After Reading, and I don’t mean that in a good way. Burn After Reading didn’t feel like a film by the people who gave us The Big Lebowski, despite the fact that it obviously had the “Coen Touch” in it. But at least you knew what was going on in there. Hail Caesar!, on the other hand, is what I feared the Coens would throw out one day: so confused even though it’s supposed to be a satirical product, a farce on politics, Hollywood, the studio system, and gossip columnists that doesn’t quite get where it should be. As with Miller’s Crossing there are parts I liked and parts I didn’t, but overall I didn’t take to it. A pity, because the Coens always seemed to throw out films which you took to spontaneously.

The plot is Coen-esque, naturally. Hail, Caesar! looks at Hollywood before the Studio System started to fall and during those Red Scare days when scriptwriters were equated with intellectuals and thus Communists. Our hero (we never get heroes in Coen-land, but never mind that) is Baird Whitlock, who acts like Robert Taylor or Richard Burton from The Robe but ends but being George Clooney, who plays him. (Clooney, like in Burn After Reading, is confused and dazed, which provokes hilarity because his cultured voice doesn’t for one moment betray the kind of confusion his face does.) Whitlock is a star who’s chosen as a kidnap victim by a bunch of screenwriters on a self-imposed exile in a mansion in Malibu, where they discuss Marx and economics and politics and “a book called 'Capital' with a K” (as Clooney later tells).

Our real hero, on the other hand, is Josh Brolin, who as Eddie Mannix is a real-life fixer at a major film studio whose main function is to keep its actors out of scandal. We see Brolin most of the time, which is a curious thing: he isn’t of the stuff that heroes are made and he can’t really act out the protagonist without betraying half a dozen weaknesses (the Coens proved this much in No Country for Old Men), but it is one of the redeeming factors of Hail, Caesar! that he comes through despite that setback. Which is a relief, I guess, because about half the time we see the world from his point of view and we’re supposed to empathise with him.

I mentioned before that the film is a satire, and this shows in almost every frame. At times Hail, Caesar! feels like the film which the entire plot revolves around (also called Hail, Caesar! with the telltale subtitle “A Tale of the Christ”). It opens with the credit sequence to the parodied film (equated, one feels, with that of the actual film) and ends with an angelic chorus over some drab, colourless movie-studios before the camera moves up to the clouds in the sky: we’re supposed to assume that the actual film, at the end, is swallowed by the parodied film. We also hear Michael Gambon narrating the story for us in advance like he would for a sword-and-sandal epic. Overall, entertaining.

Of course there’s fun and there’s humour, and it wouldn’t be a Coen film without either of them, but that is not, to my mind, enough to salvage an essentially drab film. This feels more like something Wes Anderson could have come up with, though without some of his idiosyncrasies. We remember the Coen Brothers because they started the independent film movement in America, which led up to Anderson today. In Hail, Caesar! the moments of funniness are quick, too quick, the jokes are so preconceived that we feel forced when we laugh at them (Tilda Swinton playing twin sisters and rival gossip columnists didn’t, alas, feel funny at all), and Brolin, despite his triumph as a protagonist, isn’t there in several crucial scenes (and when he’s not, we get actors like Christopher Lambert and Scarlett Johansson giving us sequences which are forgotten as soon as they are over, except for a prolonged musical number from a film that looks like but is not Anchors Aweigh).

The only exception to all this is, I think, Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, a Kirby Grant lookalike whose goofy accent we’re supposed to laugh at, particularly when he tries to move away from cowboy flicks to adaptations of Broadway comedies directed by Ralph Fiennes (who looks like Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Capra, and half a dozen other European filmmakers who struck gold in Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s all put together, even though he’s in the film for barely 15 minutes).  Ehrenreich is the most likable character in the film, and the most underrated, because he’s the one who patches up the story though he escapes our sight as soon as he’s done resolving it, a pity because he is the most satirical product in the film.

Apart from Ehrenreich, the only scenes which offered some humour were the ones with the self-exiled screenwriters, who speak polished English and German-English, smoke archaic pipes, live in a house that’s obviously too expensive for them (Frank Lloyd Wright might have built it), and, like many intellectuals of their calibre from that time, are armchair socialists who think they’re preaching the gospel truth and are shunned by the studio system because it’s a capitalist instrument. But then the entire mood of Hail, Caesar! is based on exaggeration, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The way Clooney is kidnapped is silly, the way Swinton’s characters are supposed to depict Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, who in real life bickered with each other so much that they could have been twin sisters in fiction, is silly, and even that sequence of the Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, and what-not priests giving their two cents on the way God should be featured in the film that Brolin’s studio is making is silly. If silliness is a virtue, then in Hail, Caesar! it is its own virtue. Again, that’s not a bad thing all the time – if it was, we wouldn’t have laughed at Raising Arizona or The Big Lebowski the way we did.

The problem here is that this silliness doesn’t move us to laughter as much as we’d want. On Rotten Tomatoes, for instance, the critics’ rating is about 85% while the audiences’ rating is 46%. Batman vs Superman, on the other hand, had the opposite problem, with audiences loving the film about three times more than the critics. Part of the reason for this may be that the Coens aren’t populists and that they don’t churn out stories for mass consumption the way Zack Snyder does. But even measured against this standard, I felt that Hail, Caesar! could have been more than what it was (which isn’t to say that it was a box-office failure – it’s grossed more than 60 million against a budget of 22 million), and precisely because it was less a comedy than an intellectual farce, which isn’t the same thing.

The trend these days is to go for satirical stories that directly poke at what they’re mocking. But satire is not comedy and is not funny all the time – taken to its limits it’ll churn out something like Spy Movie and Disaster Movie where the humour is forced, not felt – and on too much of an intellectual plane there’s hardly any comedy at all. A self-aware and self-conscious comedy isn’t always a bad idea, but if it overreaches itself it can fail. Hail, Caesar! is a triumph of form over matter, of intellect over feeling, and coupled with the fact that, like most of the Coen Brothers’ other work, the story’s so preconceived that sometimes we need to assume the basis for what we’re watching, it is more a self-conscious Absurdist tract than a coherent story.

Of course it could have been a complete wreck, but it isn’t. And that’s a relief, because half of this film represents to me what it should have been in the other half. There are patches of brilliance, the acting (as is usual for a Coen product) is top-notch, and the silliness isn’t terrible. But it could have been better, a phrase (I fear) I am using too much on what these two remarkable directors have been giving us since of late.