Hail, Caesar! (2016)
It is easy to take Hail, Caesar! (2016) as just a thoroughly enjoyable lightweight comedy. But there is much more to this film if you understand the dark history of the Hollywood studio system of the 1920s – 1960s and its demise after a USA Supreme Court found that it breached competition law. The phrase ‘genre factory’ alludes to that era when big production companies owned permanent movie lots, actors, sets, distribution networks and even cinemas. In common use ‘genre factory’ is the opposite of ‘art-house’ and Hollywood has always been sensitive about its reputation for mass-produced formulaic movies while independent art-houses are credited for innovative aesthetic works. Read in this context, Hail, Caesar! steps back for a huge laugh at the studio system and its legacy.
The storyline is based on a day in the life of a Hollywood executive, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he moves between scenes of various movies in production. Juggling several films at once, his job is to make sure that the big-name stars are happy and their public image remains wholesome. A staunch Catholic, he struggles with guilt over his promise to quit smoking and goes to confession every day. Across its sprawling film lots, we see scenes from a western, a period drama, a sailor dance/musical, a synchronised swimming spectacle, and the ‘big’ biblical epic Hail, Caesar! Things go awry when the epic’s star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by a madcap group of disaffected scriptwriters and communists, a side-story that lampoons the Cold War communist peril depicted more seriously in Trumbo (2015). While sorting out the missing Whitlock, he also deals with the embarrassing pregnancy of his unmarried aquatic star whose swimming costume no longer fits; wards off irritating twin-sister gossip columnists who threaten scandal scoops; and mentors a hapless trick-riding Western star who must learn to talk like they do in drama movies. It’s a mashup style of pastiche comedy that both celebrates and mocks Hollywood genres and movie icons.
This is an hilarious take on ‘the Hollywood dream’. The camera overhead and behind-the-scene shots on different sets is the Coen Brothers’ way of self-reflectively reminding audiences of Hollywood’s unbroken power to fabricate the illusions that are the very essence of the movie industry. Honest fixer Mannix symoblises the manic faith in schmaltzy escapism, the opiate for the masses, produced abundantly in the citadel of capitalism and so loved around the world.
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Stars: Josh Brolin, George Cooney, Alden Ehrenreich