2016 • 100 minutes • Universal Pictures
I am not an acolyte of the Coen brothers. I even thought I’d never seen a Coen brothers movie until a friend of mine helpfully pointed out that I’d seen both O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Fargo. This lack of attention and devotion is no slam on them—I do want to see Inside Llewelyn Davis for reasons that are totally not related to Oscar Isaac—but rather more an indicator of where I stand in the landscape of American cineastes.
So I was sold much more on the setting—1950s Hollywood, in that last gasp of the studio system—than on the directors. And, of course, on the promise of Channing Tatum dancing. It’s now a commonly acknowledged fact that Channing Tatum’s moves will bring in the masses. This is how Magic Mike XXL was willed into existence by all of America, the same way we got Keith Richards into Pirates of the Caribbean.
So, let’s line up our pieces: Baird Whitlock, star of Capitol Pictures’ Biblical epic Hail, Caesar! (hey, that’s our title!), has been kidnapped. Head of production at Capitol Pictures and all-around fixer Eddie Mannix (loosely based on the actual man) tries to handle that crisis while also handling unmarried starlet DeeAnna Moran’s pregnancy and transitioning Western star Hoby Doyle to dramatic roles.
Plot is not something Hail, Caesar! has in abundance. If plot is a story’s engine, then Hail, Caesar! putters around for much of its run time, despite taking place in the course of a single day. Rather, the film’s thin plot feels like the barest excuse to put on grand pastiche set pieces.
Which is no bad thing, as each set piece is gorgeous. Scarlet Johansson’s rictus grin in Moran’s water ballet sequence is both fascinating and grotesque; George Clooney gruffly plays to the rafters while filming Hail, Caesar!; newcomer Alden Ehrenreich (and, presumably, some wildly talented stuntmen) elegantly executes a Western action sequence with both efficiency and self-effacement. As anticipated, Tatum’s “No Dames” number (essentially, “Nothing Like a Dame” but with maximum amounts of gay subtext) is a crowd pleaser. For all my mixed feelings about this film, the sensation of being in an audience where everyone leaned forward when that scene started was well worth the price of admission.
My favorite scene, though, was the unsettlingly dark scene where Mannix visits Calhoun, one of the studio’s editors. As she plays back the dailies of Doyle’s for him, her scarf becomes entangled in the machine. She lives, with a pithy one-liner, but it’s the closest thing to violence and the real world that the film ever gets, despite its kidnappings and slappings. Even Whitlock’s kidnappers, once revealed, seem to be functioning on a purely academic level.
In fact, Hail, Caesar! feels largely like an academic exercise in both recreating Golden Age Hollywood and puncturing it. It’s certainly gorgeous to look at, drenched in a Technicolor-esque saturation that seems to be missing from a great deal of modern films. (The shadow of Grimdark Canyon spreads ever further! Resist! Resist!) And the cast is brilliant; Ehrenreich, in particular, is so perfect and endearing as Hoby that I look forward to seeing him in more high profile (well, other than a Coen brothers film) work.
But it left me strangely cold. And I wasn’t sure why for a few days, which is why I didn’t post this review on Monday as I like to do for films I manage to catch opening weekend. But yesterday, BuzzFeed published a piece by Anne Helen Petersen where she uses her superior knowledge of Golden Age Hollywood and Dyer to posit Hail, Caesar! as an anti-musical, deliberately trying to break that form by applying narratives that cannot be so cleanly tied up to it.
I think that’s a really fascinating and worthwhile reading of the film, the kind of cinematic criticism that makes you see everything in a new light. But Petersen ends the piece by talking about how the Coens love to challenge their viewers, even watch them struggle with the puzzle that they’re presented.
And I think that’s hitting me oddly, because I am not terribly interested in struggling against this film. Perhaps this is because generating meaning from text and subtext and unpacking things to absurd lengths are things that are second nature to me, as a reader response theorist and a participant in fandom seventeen years running. I am in constant, delighted struggle with texts; faced with one that I can’t hook into, I am not spurred to continue banging that door down, but turn my attention to the next puzzle.
It is what it is.
This won’t, of course, turn me off the Coens. I have encountered and sometimes even enjoyed many texts that actively hate people like me, so slightly malicious directors do not phase me in the slightest. Onto Inside Llewelyn Davis with me.
I saw this film in theaters.