There are four set pieces in Hail, Caesar!, the Coen brothers’ most recent release, each revolving around one of the four stars at the film’s heart. The first — which opens the film — offers the grand Bible-epic spectacle that typified the ‘50s version of the blockbuster: a cast of thousands, dazzling Technicolor, widescreen expansiveness, with a handsome star (George Clooney as Baird Whitlock, doing an amalgam of Clark Gable, Charlton Heston, and Tony Curtis) at its center. About 30 minutes later, there’s DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson as a mix of Esther Williams and Lana Turner) in a synchronized swimming spectacle; then Burt Gurney, played by Channing Tatum, tap-dancing, Gene Kelly style, through a Navy song-and-dance number; and finally Hobie Doyle, a Gene Autry–esque singing cowboy played by relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, singing to the moon and/or the pretty girl somewhere in the Old West.
Each of these scenes is an homage to ‘50s cinema — perfect renditions, in both aesthetics and tone, of the sort of movies that typified the last days of the golden age of Hollywood. They’re so luscious, and so flawlessly designed to entertain cinephiles, that, as BuzzFeed News' own film critic Alison Wilmore put it, the film functions as “one big, delightful dare to the audience to choose a favorite scene.” They’re also buoys in a somewhat plotless movie: As others have pointed out, the Coens have abandoned traditional narrative almost entirely in recent years, instead crafting MacGuffin-centered plots in which the characters spend a lot of time seeking something that ultimately matters very little.
What plot there is follows a Hollywood fixer (Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix) as he attempts to clean up the messes of the film’s four stars. Other films (Michael Clayton, L.A. Confidential) have delved into the deep psychic toll of cleaning up the moral transgressions of the rich and famous, but that is not Hail, Caesar!’s concern: In the Coens’ hands, Mannix comes off as well-intentioned man taking care of his feckless, adorable, and in no way rotten children. It’s sanitized, rose-colored, and smooth: an homage, a celebration, or, as critics have called it, a “lark,” a “mash note,” a “doodle in the Coen canon” that’s “pure popcorn fun.”
And while Hail, Caesar! can certainly be read as a bite-less diversion, that’s the point. The Coen brothers are masters of genre, experimenting in noir and screwball comedy, and Hail, Caesar! is their take on the backstage musical, i.e., a film that depicts a group of people putting on a musical — or, in the case of Hail, Caesar!, producing a bunch of movies.
But backstage musicals have also offered trenchant — if heavily sublimated — critiques of Hollywood and the ideological panaceas it provides. With Hail, Caesar!, the Coens have mapped one of Hollywood’s most beloved genres onto Hollywood’s own history, creating a film that, in one regard, blends perfectly into the genre while, in another, surfaces the fundamental flaws and subterfuges of both the genre itself and the industry that created it. Put differently, if you thought this movie was a mindless delight, the Coens have successfully fucked with you.
“Entertainment is a type of performance produced for profit,” film historian Richard Dyer writes in his landmark essay Entertainment and Utopia, and entertainment’s chief achievement is its ability to “present either complex or unpleasant feelings (e.g. Involvement in personal or political events; jealous, loss of love, defeat) in a way that makes them seem uncomplicated direct and vivid, not ‘qualified’ or ‘ambiguous’ as day-to-day life makes them, and without intimations of self-deception and pretense.” Entertainment, in other words, sifts “real life” events into bold, readily digestible morally unambiguous acts.
Not all Hollywood films follow this imperative — some of the most artistically daring and important films, including some of the Coens’ most resilient work, is not “entertaining” in this sense. But that description nevertheless applies to the bulk of what comes out of mainstream Hollywood today, and especially holds with the films of classic Hollywood, especially the grand, sunny films of MGM, the studio on which Capitol Pictures of Hail, Caesar! is based.
The musical, according to Dyer, is in many ways the apotheosis of “entertainment,” especially in its capacity to transform complicated, nagging feelings of anxiety, unease, and sadness into utopia. Any time something feels ambiguous — in the plot, with a character — the narrative cuts to a song, a dance, a spectacle — scenes that might not look like utopia but which, as Dyer points out, produce the feeling of utopia: pure, unadulterated glee. It’s that moment in Hail, Caesar! when the Coens cut away from the tension to Channing Tatum tap-dancing, and you find a shit-eating grin on your face: That’s the feeling of utopia.
Dyer argues that entertainment provides a sort of magical alchemy for social tensions, inadequacies, or absences, which he convincingly maps out:
Think about how these moments work in the most potent examples of contemporary entertainment: in the Step Up films, say or Magic Mike XXL. Each time the realities of life in America threatens to make the movie a downer, cue the dance routine. The reason we love this type of entertainment so much, then, is because it doesn’t ignore these social tensions, inadequacies, or absences — it hears them, and solves them.
But there are some things that “entertainment,” under Dyer’s definition, is bad at handling — namely, anything serious related to class, race, patriarchy, or sexuality. Attempts to “dance out” racial tensions (Save the Last Dance, Step Up, Fame, Dirty Dancing) always call attention to themselves as “dance solutions,” which means they fail, because the best moments of entertainment also make you forget that they’re even functioning ideologically. The more effective a spectacle is in effacing its status as a manufactured “utopian moment,” the more you forget that it’s really weird when people just break into song or choreographed dance in the middle of their lives.
The backstage musical accentuates and underlines what, in a “normal” musical, is meant to blend into the narrative. There’s “real life,” that is, the action surrounding the show, and then there’s “the show,” or, the moments of utopia. By showing the transition between “real life” and “the show,” these films also suggest the show (and, by extension, the utopian feelings it incites) are produced — and, depending on the tenor of the film itself, hollow and false, and the work of a system that manipulates both its workers and its audience. The genius of a film like George Cukor’s A Star Is Born, which follows Judy Garland’s bittersweet rise to stardom, lies in the tension it finds between “normal” and backstage musical, constantly asserting and undercutting feelings of utopia.
Caesar! is doing something similar to Born with a far smaller palette. It approaches the “behind the scenes” work of a major studio in Hollywood not as a noir would — unearthing its unseemly underbelly, showing the ugly work that manufactures beauty — but as a musical would. In the first 10 minutes of the film, there’s a moment in which Brolin slaps a starlet he finds in a compromising position and the noir version of this film peeks through. But that sensibility is quickly overtaken by the sounds of early-morning birds chirping on a Capitol Film set. The narrative seems to be reminding you that this is a movie about getting movies made, not the messed-up politics of a middle-aged guy colluding with the police to monitor the sex acts of starlets.
It’s not as if the Coens couldn’t make that sort of messed-up film: If Barton Fink, a jaundiced take on 1930s Hollywood, weren’t enough proof, then Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men all highlight just how dark their world view can tilt, especially when operating in the noir register. Instead, the Coens have taken the generic conventions of the backstage musical and mashed them against the very things that it is most ill-equipped to process: patriarchy and male control over female bodies, the false bottom of celebrity, homosexuality, and Hollywood’s central role in the endurance of capitalism and generalized class exploitation.
Those are big, heady, embarrassing issues — the sort of thing the Coens would only joke about as themes of the film in one of their deceptive, self-effacing interviews, in which they regularly assert unbelievable claims like “We’re not big into research."
Whether the Coens want to own it or not, it’s no coincidence that the spectacles created in their film introduce problems for their characters rather than serve as a balm for them. The first glimpses of Clooney, Ehrenreich, Johannson, and Tatum are all in the midst of their respective spectacles: Clooney marching as a Roman soldier, Ehrenreich effortless on a horse, Johannson emerging from the water, Tatum in dance. Utopia is aesthetically proffered, only to be narratively unravelled: Johannson’s sexual drive manifests in a literal inability to fit into her performing costume; the Western hero’s anachronism makes it impossible for him to fit into society; Tatum’s queerness overfills the masculine space of the Navy ship; Clooney is alienated from the Christian awakening at the Hail, Caesar! film-within-the-film, increasingly compelled by a competing, secular, class-based explanation for why the world is the way it is.
As a fixer, it’s Mannix's job to right stars — and narratives — that veer off the path. So he pays the ransom for Clooney, gives Ehrenreich an opportunity to charm like a Western hero, and figures out a way to wedge Johansson’s sexual deviance within societal “bounds.” He negotiates with dueling gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton) to have those narratives — of a “high ankle sprain,” of gallantry, of true love, depending on the star — available for mass public consumption.
Yet those quick fixes are easily unravelled: Clooney is a philanderer and a drunk whose sexual flexibility (“He got his first major role by engaging in sodomy!”) will always threaten his career; Johansson marries “a professional person,” a literal placeholder; Ehrenreich can only function within the bounds of the Western. And as for Tatum, he’s too much for Mannix to even attempt to address — and drops out of both the narrative and society, disappearing beneath the sea.
Each narrative resolves itself in some way, because that’s how a musical works, but those resolutions are hilariously flimsy. Even the meta-narrative of Mannix's own insecurity and anxiety about his job — not over the moral ambiguity, but the fact that he “missed dinner at home” too much — are neatly solved because a voice inside, which a priest tells him must be the voice of God, tells him it’s the right thing to do.
The problems inherent to ‘50s Hollywood — including the studio’s enormous exploitation of its stars, the laundering of those same stars’ images, the legislation of female and queer sexuality, and the production of righteous, morally legible values amid an increasingly illegible political climate, the breathless red mongering, and the generalized intolerance of belief systems that can’t be assimilated into white Christian heterosexual America — overflow the ideological capacity of the genre. It’s as if a paint-by-numbers narrative that calls for vivid, cheery primary colors was burdened with too much paint, all of which began to pool and seep outwards in a brownish, murky stain.
It’s not that the film sours, though, or even fails so much as its generic framework flails. Even the characters are confused by their resolution: “Huh,” says one of the Communist men in the boat when Tatum disappears into the sea. “Huh,” echoes the audience. And when the framework flails, so too does its capacity to generate meaning — which is echoed in Clooney’s final scene, intended as the clinching moment of the Hail, Caesar! film-within-a-film narrative, in which he gives a performance so spirited that it enthralls even the jaded crew: “A new truth,” he soliloquies, “A truth told not in words but in light, a truth that we would see if we had but, but, but..." But then Clooney forgets the line, effectively shattering the promised utopian deliverance. “Faith!” he yells at himself in frustration. “Aw, SON OF A BITCH!”
It’s a classic Coen brothers moment, and it punctures the artifice not only of the Hail, Caesar! in which Whitlock stars, but the meta-narrative of the Hail, Caesar! in which Clooney stars, along with its glossy, lovingly drawn navel-gazing portrait of Hollywood. In truth, Mannix was a massive, arguably murderous dick, it was incredibly dangerous to be gay, women had no control over their bodies, and the studios ruined the lives of thousands, over the course of decades, in order to create the moments of fleeting utopia for millions. “Stories end and stories begin,” the narrator explains at the film’s conclusion, “but the story of Eddie Mannix will never end.” That’s a sentiment that extends to the whole of the Hollywood system, with its inclination to flatten the thornier and more unsettling parts not only of life, but of films that artists like the Coens persist, despite continuing restrictions and financial difficulties, in making.
Hail, Caesar! isn’t a softball: It’s a curveball so sneaky it’s evaded most viewers. You could argue that, in sublimating their critique so deeply in the inner workings of genre, they’ve negated it. But the Coens have rarely operated on the narrative surface: Look at the myriad rankings of Coen films that have emerged in the month leading up to Hail, Caesar!’s release, and you’ll read endless paragraphs on films that have aged and matured and twisted their hooks into viewers, but only with time. It’s almost as if a Coen brothers movie requires its own reconsideration. Or, even more likely, that they love watching viewers struggle with their films: If there’s anything that should be clear, after 30 years of filmmaking, it’s that the Coens love fucking with people. Hail, Caesar! is, in many ways, a failure, but in that regard — it’s an unmitigated triumph.