Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 47 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
…choose this day whom you will serve…
…Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
The Coen Brothers cast their satirical eyes upon their own Hollywood in their new star-studded film. It might not probe or cut as deeply as their 1991 comedy Barton Fink, but it is still lots of fun. Of special interest to me is its time setting, toward the end of the period of Trumbo, a tumultuous time when screenwriters were arraigned against the studio heads and the black listing practice was still strong due to the fear of Communism. For people of faith the film can be seen as dealing with the issue of choosing, along with the sub-theme of calling or chosenness.
The story centers on Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a fictionalized combination of MGM’s Joseph Edgar Allen John Mannix and Howard Strickling during that studio’s golden years—from the 1920s through the early 50s. As with these two real life personages, Mannix is a “fixer,” though his official title at Capitol Pictures is the more high sounding “Head of Physical Production.” As a fixer his is an almost 24-hour job of dashing around and getting the studio’s stars out of messes of their own creation, lest their carefully crafted public images be damaged. On this particular day Mannix’s plate is more than full due to Baird Whitlock, the star of the studio’s prestige film Hail, Caesar, being kidnapped by a group of disgruntled screenwriters, all of them Communists pledged to inject the Party line into their scripts.
Josh Brolin deftly plays Eddie Mannix, shown as a pious Catholic who is so bothered by some of the devious methods he must use to protect his stars—such as bribing cops so that they will not arrest a miscreant—that he winds up in a confessional box seeking absolution from a priest almost every 24 hours. He also feels guilty over missing his little daughter and son’s school events, but is nonetheless supported by his devoted wife. In between all of his hectic studio activities he meets with a head hunter from Lockeed who dangles before him an attractive contract, one that would both pay more but also require less hours. The possibility of being able to have more family time is very tempting. I have added the above passage about Satan tempting Christ because the recruiter is very proud that Lockeed makes warplanes and “was there” when the Hydrogen Bomb was dropped on a Pacific atoll.
For some the scene in which Mannix meets with an interfaith clergy panel about the film Hail Caesar will be a highlight. His is the usual Hollywood spineless desire to make the film as least offensive to everyone as possible. (Amusing note of Coen bias—the rabbi gets the funniest lines.) The film’s subtitle “A Tale of Christ” will bring to mind Ben Hur, but the scenes showing Roman soldiers marching along a road while a narrator pontificates about Roman power and a new faith arising in Palestine is more like Quo Vadis, and the lugubrious scene in which George Clooney’s Roman tribune is transformed when he meets Christ face to face, and later utters a pious speech at the Cross, will bring to mind The Robe. During this meeting with clergy some of Mannix’s words could have come right out of Richard Lindsay’s insightful book Hollywood Biblical Ethics. When a clergyman brings up the Bible, Mannix says that his film will become the text for the viewers. In other words, because of its visuals it will take precedence over the Bible itself in the mind of the beholder.
At first Baird Whitlock’s disappearance is thought to be due to his drinking problem, but when Mannix is given the ransom note demanding $100,000, the fixer shifts his search into overdrive. The film’s climactic scene with the Roman tribune at the cross needs to be finished, and shutting down production until the star can be found would be ruinously expensive. Mannix is concurrently dealing with the following problems: the Esther Williams-like star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) whose bathing suit will soon no longer be able to conceive that the unmarried star is pregnant; the rescue of a starlet when police raid the salacious photo studio where she is being photographed; and the miscasting, due to the New York bankers insistence, of their singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in the romantic drawing room romance Merrily We Dance. The dumb as dirt Hobie is talented at lassoing and singing, but cannot deliver a simple line to the beauty on the couch, to whom he is supposed to go through the parlor door and sit beside. During the numerous takes and retakes he even has trouble opening the door.
George Clooney’s character, as in O Brother, Where Art Thou, is not nearly as sharp as the short stage sword he wears that keeps getting entangled in the chairs that he sits in while wearing his Roman armor. When he wakes up at the posh ocean-side mansion where a dozen or so screenwriters have gathered, he soon is taken in by their Communist arguments—one of the jargon-talking writers even sees significance in the studio’s name–Capitol Studios—when he discuss Marx. I was a little saddened that the Coens cast the writers as total sell-outs to Moscow (there is even a rendes vous with a Soviet submarine later on).
The Coens never even mention the infamous black list which cost so many writers their jobs, though Clooney’s character dialogue does include the phrase “naming names.” For those who know about the black listed writers known as the Hollywood Ten, this is a reference to their refusal to give the names of colleagues who attended various meetings, some of which were Communist sponsored. For a more balanced view showing that some writers were couragous victims of black listing see the film already mentioned Trumbo. Some of the writers did leave the country, but it was not to Moscow via a submarine as in this film, but to exile in France where writers such as Jules Dassin could find work. (See the latter’s marvelous Christ Figure film He Who Must Die.) Despite this, the ensemble cast of character actors make the scenes with the writers very funny, thanks to their jargon and Baird Whitlock’s easy acceptance of their gibberish.
Other delightfully depicted characters that swarm around Mannix are: twin but rival Hollywood gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton) seeking a scoop on one of his troubled stars; director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) patiently trying to get cowboy Hoagy, now dressed in a tuxedo to say “Would that it were so simple,” a quote that’s bound to become popular with movie buffs; Frances McDormand in a brief scene as a film editor showing Mannix a rush from one of the movies in an old Moviola that becomes jammed with her neck scarf, almost choking her to death; Jonah Hill appearing as a shady private eye; Channing Tatum as a sailor in a dance routine like one from Gene Kelly’s On the Town; and the already mentioned Scarlett Johansson’s DeeAnna wearing a shiny green mermaid tail in an elaborately choreographed water ballet from Esther Williams Million Dollar Mermaid. The Coens might send up the pretentiousness and other foilbles of the old studio system, but they obviously love many of its lavish products. This film might well cause young film lovers to visit the original classics to which the Coens are paying homage.
The film is not as serious in its approach to faith as A Serious Man, but it’s depiction of a pious Catholic trying to stick to his faith despite the circumstances around him makes for an appealing movie. The new job offered him makes his decision concerning it a difficult one. If only he had the time to reflect upon it, but he barely has the time to sleep. The agent’s urging him to take up at Lockeed “something serious” dealing with America’s Cold War struggle against the Soviet’s, rather than staying with the frivolous “circus” that is Hollywood adds to the temptation. What Mannix finally decides brings in the sub-theme of call. Perhaps, like Esther, he was called “for just such a time as this.” There is no doubt that his quick mind and abilities make him the perfect man for his present job. But is the cause worthy of dedicating of his time and talents? Although they make fun of the system, the Coens also spend a lot of time in recreating the magic moments that still bring us joy and a sense of awe at the incredible talent of performers and filmmakers of that vanished era.
This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the March issue of Visual Parables.