Hail, Caesar: Not a movie review, not really

I go to the movies reasonably regularly and have seen many movies in the last few months. Some impressed me immensely, such as Spotlight and Brooklyn; some I enjoyed a lot with the odd reservation, such as Carol, The Danish Girl and The Belier Family; and others I could see the skill but they left me a little cold, like, say, the beautifully shot Revenant. However, although I’ve reviewed the odd (usually Australian) film in the past, film reviewing is not my thing, so you haven’t heard about them here. But then, a couple of days ago, we saw the Coen Brothers’* latest outing, Hail, Caesar.

I’m not going to review it, either – not really – but I’ve heard such mixed responses that I wanted to offer my two-penny’s worth, which is that it’s fun to watch, particularly if you have any interest in the golden years of Hollywood. The Coens weave their story around a day-or-so-in-the-life-of Mr Mannix, the studio go-to/fix-it man who reports to the studio boss. He looks after the actors, sorts out money problems and potential sticking points, deals with promotion and publicity, troubleshoots, in other words, anything and everything that happens on multiple sets. As he goes about this work, we see the films being made by the studio. There’s the biblical-Ben Hur like epic titled Hail, Caesar; an Esther Williams-like extravaganza; a singing cowboy adventure**; a Gene Kelly Anchors Aweigh style movie; and a British drawing-room drama, not to mention nods to James Dean, Hitchcock, spy-movies, HUAC‘s attack on Hollywood’s communists, and so on.

The Coens and their crew must have had a wonderful time creating vignettes for all these movie genres and styles, because they were, using my best non-review-language, a hoot. Take the drawing-room drama which, at the last minute, has to accept the singing cowboy in its starring role. Now our cowboy, Hobie, is known more for his singing and lassoo work, than his dramatic acting ability. The sentence he has to say in this vignette is the improbable “Would that it ‘twere so simple”. It’s a very funny scene, played beautifully by Ralph Fiennes as Laurence Laurents and Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle. I won’t spoil the outcome, but it’s worth every penny of your ticket when it comes (and not just because it features the inimitable Frances McDormand). There is, too, surely a joke in the title: Hail, Caesar is the title of the biblical epic around which the main plot turns, but Mannix is the Caesar on the lot.

The ensemble cast does a great job, but I do have to admit that when I and my party of movie-goers came out we all felt we’d seen a tribute but we weren’t sure there was much more to it, not like there was in, say, Barton Fink. If I could identify any specific serious point being made it would, perhaps, be about the lack of recognition of screenwriters.

However, perhaps it’s OK for the film not to have a BIG message. Perhaps it simply wants the audience to have fun, to remember the past (not with nostalgia but with a knowing sort of joy). And perhaps, too, the Coens want us to think about what we want from movies and movie-makers? I’m not sure I’ll remember this film long into the future, but I did enjoy it – and I can’t see anything wrong with that.

* I’ve written once before on the Coens – seems like I’m more likely to make an exception for them!

** In one of those strange coincidences, the day before we saw Hail, Caesar, I happened to see an old singing cowboy movie, Gene Autry in Guns and guitars, at the National Film and Sound Archive!

Can the Coens be serious?

Of course they can! In fact many of their films are comic with a dark side. This is particularly so of the first film of theirs that I saw, Fargo. It is one of those films you don’t forget. I don’t blog about all the films I see, and when I do blog about them, it’s usually an Australian film. Our industry is so overlooked – in Australia, let alone the world arena – that I like to do my bit. But, it is hard to resist commenting on a Coen Brothers film – and so I’m not going to (resist that is!). The film I’m talking about is their latest, A Serious Man.

A Serious Man chronicles a couple of weeks in the life of physics professor Larry Gopnik at the point that everything starts to unravel for him. It all starts (ostensibly) when a failing Korean student attempts to bribe him and his wife asks for a divorce. It’s all downhill from there as the hapless Larry’s fortitude and attempts to be a good and “serious man” are tested again and again. If you have a biblical background you will see parallels here with the story of Job. As for me, I reckon there’s a bit of the Everyman in him. Before his story starts, however, there is a funny little sepia-tone prologue set in a Polish shetl in which a man invites home another man who had helped him on the road, except that the wife believes that the man had died years ago and that her husband had introduced a dybbuk (evil spirit) into the house. These characters are never referred to again but they set the tone, introducing the idea of bad things happening – and of those things perhaps having some supernatural origin.

Like all Coen Brothers films, this is a stylish movie – it has that sort of heightened naturalism (or is it realism!) that I tend to love (like you also find in Mad Men). The details of its midwestern 1960s setting are beautifully rendered, the characters are both larger and smaller than life (if you know what I mean), the music is apt as ever, and it mocks and it mocks and it mocks our failings as human beings. Interestingly, it does not use a named cast as many of the Coens’ recent movies have. It’s also very Jewish. It’s imbued with that Jewish sense of fatalism (“why is God doing this to us?”) and is presented with typically Jewish self-deprecating humour. Some criticise it for being stereotypical – and it is. But that’s part of its humour. If you don’t get that sort of humour – if you don’t see the humanity behind it – you won’t like the movie.

When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies… (Rabbi Marshak)

We can’t ever really know what’s going on. (Larry)

Now, I have to warn you that my son, a very keen Coen fan, did NOT like this movie. Well-made he said, and he giggled a bit he said, but he found it mean-spirited and oppressive. He’s not the only one. It seems that this movie is splitting critics. Our very own Margaret and David are split: Margaret gave it 2 stars out of 5, while David gave it 4. Margaret, like my son, felt it was mean and unlikeable, whereas David, like me, found it funny with its own sense of warmth. How can the same film have two such opposing points of view? So, if you haven’t seen it, don’t take my word for it – you know what to do!