Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Deep Parody: Coen Brothers' Hail, Caesar

Here's a cheesy metaphor for the wonderful film  Hail Caesar:  It's like lasagna, layer on layer of parodies, personalities, and cultural history, all warmed with faith, hope, and charity melted on top.

Part of the pleasure lies in seeing the layers.  We can imagine Joel and Ethan Coen with buds brainstorming around a table.  So, it's Hollywood, 1951:  What was in the zeitgeist, then?  Gene Kelly musicals, H-Bomb, Esther Williams water ballets, pastel-colored kitchen dramas, Gene Autrey's singing cowboy films, films noir, Red Scare, Biblical epics in Technicolor, actors with fruity accents in highbrow scripts, theologians who were household names, and the H-Bomb.  What if, they must have laughed their heads off, asking,  What if Communists kidnapped the Charlton Heston conservative and brainwashed him?  What if a Priest, a Preacher, an Orthodox Patriarch, and a Rabbi walk into a movie studio?  What if the studio head decides to fill the role of blase blueblood in a highbrow drama with a drawling musical cowboy?  

Holding all these elements together is studio executive "Eddie Mannix," played by Josh Brolin.  He's like the hard-boiled detective with the pure heart.  His unstinting efforts to contain crises bubbling up among the stars of a half-dozen films constitute the action of the movie.  But the story is just one simple choice he has to make, put to him at a lovingly recreated tiki bar by a rep from Lockheed:  Will Mannix take a job that will allow him time to see his wife and children, doing something "serious" for mankind?  "Seriousness" is signified by a photo of an H-Bomb blasting the Bikini Islands to smithereens.  Or will he continue to give heart, soul, and all his days and nights to the frivolous Hollywood film industry, already in decline as TV rises?

For every temptation to join the military-industrial complex,  there's a scene in a confessional booth with an exhausted Priest.  My friend Susan and I have puzzled over the way religious faith and socio-polical idealism emerge as themes in the movie.  The true believers are all comical, and the Biblical epic is ridiculous. Yet Brolin's character takes his faith seriously, the communist stooges make sacrifice for their cause, and we're led to see a speech about "faith" as a sincere moment in the epic (even while we snicker at the "tasteful" presentation of Jesus on the cross).  We don't conclude with some writers that this is some kind of statement about religion, except in the broadest sense of What Really Matters in Life, and that turns out not to be building H-Bombs.

The long-standing rap on the Coens is that they know everything about movies, and nothing about real life.   I feared this movie would leave a sour taste like the last of theirs I saw, another Hollywood parody called Barton Fink.  Instead, Hail, Caesar is relentlessly joyous, exuberant, and sweet.

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