Some of us get excited when the Coen brothers have a new film out. You may be one of us. If so, you might be interested in the review that I wrote of their new release, "Hail, Caesar!" for Spokane Public Radio. Following is a transcription:
One of the best quotes about the movie business came from the pen of screenwriter William Goldman. In his book “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” Goldman said the following: “Nobody knows anything… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one.”
I thought of that quote the other day as I sat through a screening of the Coen brothers movie “Hail, Caesar.” As the movie wore on, and I was only occasionally amused, I continued to wonder what the Coens were up to.
It wasn’t the first time. Joel and Ethan Coen have been making movies since 1984, when a dark little neo-noir called “Blood Simple” hit the big screen. Since then they’ve emerged from the fringe of the film industry and become a member of Hollywood’s A-list. Winners of four Oscars, including a Best Picture statuette for 2008’s “No Country for Old Men,” the Coens have written, produced and directed a number of films that would make most the top 100 list of most film fans. But along with “Fargo” and “The Big Lebowski,” they’ve also given us “The Ladykillers” and “Intolerable Cruelty.”
As Goldman says, every time out moviemaking is a guess. And for the Coens, the guess about “Hail, Caesar” is that this time they’ve given us little more than a slight amusement.
“Hail, Caesar,” it turns out, is the title of a wannabe biblical blockbuster being produced by an MGM-type movie studio called Capitol Pictures. Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin) is the studio head, and he’s busy day and night putting out small fires – whether they involve an unmarried movie star who is pregnant or quashing rumors involving another star’s shady past – before they become bonfires of controversy.
In the midst of “Hail, Caesar’s” production, studio star Baird Whitlock (played by George Clooney) gets kidnapped by a mysterious group that calls itself The Future. They want $100,000 – and maybe more. Mannix sets out to fix things – that’s what he does – even as he considers changing careers (he’s been given a generous offer to become the head of Lockheed Aircraft, which the head-hunter assures him is the wave of the future).
But that’s only the main storyline. We also meet Hobie Doyle, a Western star (played by Alden Ehrenreich) who is being groomed to become the least capable romantic lead imaginable. We meet DeeAnna Moran (played by Scarlett Johansson), an Esther Williams-type performer who needs Mannix’s help. We meet the twin-sister gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton). We even meet the members of The Future itself, all of whom fit the profile of the proverbial Fellow Traveler.
But through it all – including a spirited musical number featuring Channing Tatum that is as clever as it is homoerotic – one question lingers: What does it all mean? Have the Coens crafted a biting satire? Is this a love letter to classic Hollywood? Is it both? Neither? I wish I could say.
Maybe William Goldman knows.