The Coen Brothers love em or hate em are consistent; they may hold limited appeal to some (to me in particular) but they're constantly enterprising, often inventive (though not as often as they like to think they are), occasionally intriguing and--when the moon waxes full at the right time--even poignant. They often doodle on small budgets, allowing them the freedom to doodle in uncommercial or unexplored directions (at least unexplored by the mainstream Hollywood director); sometimes they win the chance to produce on a bigger budget (adjusting for inflation), resulting in a handsome-looking tho no less skewed monstrosity (The Hudsucker Proxy).
You might call Hail Caesar! their Proxy for the new millennium only in terms of subject matter it's more like a lighter-toned Barton Fink. Set in '50s Hollywood, the film isn't so much a sendup of the period as it is an excuse to depict in a series of lovingly constructed setpieces their notion of what '50s Hollywood filmmaking was like--this before television ate away at the target audience and the studios sought to lure them back with swimming movies and musicals and gigantic spectacles (in that sense the studio heads weren't that much different from the megalomanically paranoid Roman emperors they put up onscreen). Is any of this more than nominally accurate? I don't think the brothers much care; they were born in the period and presumably grew up on the diet of titles the studio is shown to be working on in its various lots. The rest of the picture is stuffed with the standard-issue Coen-style conceits and jokes and oddball digressions, meant to show us how hip (if we get the gag) or unhip (if we don't) we are to their sensibility.
And that's it, really, which doesn't say much but does say something (The Coens basically supply a certain amount of clever well-engineered often allusive humor, which in most of their films is all they do). Might note that their treatment of leftist writers is ungenerous and not as funny as it could have been (but relatively more entertaining than can be found in the color-by-numbers Trumbo), and that the high points of the film include a discussion group made up of a Catholic priest, a Greek Orthodox priest, a protestant minister, and a rabbi (insert favorite off-color religious joke here), trying to gauge the impact and possibly offensive nature of their Roman superproduction (naturally the rabbi--why are Jews so metaphysically fatalistic, and so funny about it?--gets all the best lines). I'd say the other high would be the gloriously homoerotic sailors-in-a-saloon musical extravaganza titled (but what else?) "No Dames:" think a Magic Mike dance number with more clothes less inhibitions and superior choreography (is that Channing Tatum tapdancing his heinie off?) and you might have an idea.
(A swim pool musical number with Scarlett Johanssen as a swimsuit mermaid might have qualified as a high point, if only the Coens had included sparklers that light up as they come out of the water--what kind of watery musical number forgets to break out the sparklers? Even Mel Brooks knew better than that!)
If there’s a concept unifying the disparate storylines (swim flick; sophisticated comedy; dance musical; period epic)—if so to speak there’s a special dressing available to bring all
the fruits n nuts n leafy greens together into a satisfying bowl—I’m not aware of it (to
be honest decades of sitting through their pictures has made me give up even trying). I
will say this though: the film I’m reminded of more than any other comes not
from the ‘50s but strangely the late '70s; stranger still its director--the usually feckless Steven Spielberg--comes out looking better than the brothers. O I've held the filmmakers up side-by-side before, but where I usually plunk down on the side of cynicism and misanthropy (compared to Spielberg's irritatingly sunny worldview) this time I prefer the better show.
And 1941 I submit is better. Enjoyable as Channing is hoofing with a cohort of sashaying seamen, Bobby DiCiccio's Wally Stephens jitterbugs him off the floor with eyepopping dance moves that literally end in a riot; later the Coens give us a fitfully funny submarine sequence involving a lifeboat full of leftist writers--a sequence Spielberg trumps by topping his sub with a naked woman clinging desperately to the tip of the periscope.
The Coens regard Hollywood as their own private domain, to jab at and jeer as cruelly as they see fit; Spielberg sees the entire Los Angeles basin as a Lionel model train set--the world's biggest tabletop toy--and plays accordingly, sending giant Ferris wheels spinning down short docks, divebombing Hollywood Boulevard with near full-scale planes, anti-aircraft flak popping about them like so many firecrackers. One is an intricate deadpan gag devised by the wittiest most intelligent filmmakers in the industry at the moment (yes I'm still holding out for someone--anyone--better), the other was the product of a protean talent at his most megalomanic--pounding down paint factories, annihilating amusement parks, leveling large sections of Downtown LA with glee.* You pick which LA-based movie you'd rather see.
*(The film's critical drubbing and smaller-than-expected boxoffice (it made money, but not in the scale of Jaws, Close Encounters and the like) humbled Spielberg and prompted him to do relatively smaller more heartwarming uplifting films (E.T., The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Amistad, the recent Lincoln)--to his eventual financial gain and our irrevocable loss).
First published in Businessworld 3.18.16