Thursday, October 27, 2016

Hail Caesar: Et tu Ethan?

Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix & Tilda Swison as Gossip Columnist

O Talent Where Art Thou?

Since this is related to the Bear's usual movie fare, and since it is horrible beyond his worst nightmares, the Coens' latest movie, Hail Caesar is the subject of today's ephemeris. The Coens made some very good, and memorable, movies, peaking with the George Clooney comedy O Brother Where Art Thou? in 2000. After that: O Talent Where Art Thou?

2001's The Man Who Wasn't There, with Billy Bob Thornton was an interesting noir feature, except the lead - deliberately - wasn't there. The Bear enjoyed it, but something seems to have slipped a cog in the genius of the pair. 2003 brought us another Clooney vehicle in a watchable rom-com Intolerable Cruelty, but by now, something was clearly wrong.  If there were any doubt, the 2004 remake of the Alec Guinness Ealing Studios classic, The Lady Killers, proved that the duo could make you want to strangle even Tom Hanks.

It has been downhill since then. However, the Coens will remain beloved by critics, especially when they harken back to the ridiculous Barton Fink, and make movies about Hollywood. Oh, how that delights the moths who flutter around the computer animators whose offices used to house the likes of Pandro Berman, Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks.

Although, on second thought, those CGI guys probable just telecommute across the Pacific.

Eddie Mannix

The story is a day in the life of real-life studio fixer Eddie Mannix, played by a world weary, and subtly conflicted Josh Brolin.  Who was Eddie Mannix? For the purposes of the story - and MGM - he was the guy who handled bad publicity before it became publicity. MGM was made up of three studios, and Louis B. Mayer was the salaried boss. On the East Coast, the Schenk brothers ("Skank" here; L.B. would have appreciated that, at least) owned much of the outfit, as well as the Lowes theater chain somewhat important for distribution.

They sent their boy Mannix west to keep an eye on things. "Things" meant every bit of mischief into which the coddled stars of the studio system might get themselves. Mannix got them out of it, using persuasion, bribes or muscle.

As an example, Mannix tracked down every single scrap of of a pornographic short of an MGM star. Did he take a satchel filled with $100,000, like he did in the movie to ransom George Clooney's star of a sword and sandal epic? Or did he bring in east coast muscle? Or is the answer somewhere in between? We do know that when Walter Huston struck and killed a pedestrian, Eddie Mannix was Servicemaster: Like It Never Even Happened.

Hollywood is indeed the dream factory, and at this remove, it is probably impossible separate truth from fiction from many of these legends. The important thing is that MGM had a lot of money invested in its stars' images, and was willing to do anything to protect it.

Mannix was Catholic, so, in Hail Caesar, that means a scrupulous Catholic who tells the priest how long it has been since his last confession by looking at his watch. Then he confesses things like sneaking a cigarette. Funny? You tell the Bear.

A Ransom Note to Hollywood

How many reviews has the Bear read containing the phrase, "a love letter to Hollywood?" This is not a love letter. These people do not love Hollywood. This is a ransom note made of letters cut out of different magazines, and ineptly glued together.

First of all, it looks cheap. Where are the 15,000 extras and 18 acres of sets of Ben Hur? The real lions and fleet of chariots of Quo Vadis? Not to mention the real Roman galleys that burned in the 1925 silent Ben Hur? Mannix walks through empty lots. We might see a handful of people shooting a scene, as where Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich are funny as a fussy, polite English director coaxing a cowboy actor through the line "would that it were so simple."

Sure, this is not really a big budget epic, even though it is about a Hollywood epic in 1951. The Coens are asking a lot of viewers to just pretend along with them, even for an alleged comedy. You don't have to make a movie about a Hollywood epic, but if you do, you had better deliver.

These studios were bustling towns in their own right. Why does "Capitol" look like a ghost town? Couldn't they at least have filled this soulless monstrosity with CGI script girls, and directors with their entourages, and actors with even bigger entourages? Granted, extras cost more than two bucks a day now, but really. Why film Brolin on a big empty lot at all.

Scarlett Johannson plays an Esther Williams character who is too pregnant to fit into her fish tail costume. The Coens can't resist trying to film an actual Esther Williams scene. You can put as many names on a scene as you want, but if you do not have the talent to pull off an Esther Williams scene, it's just going to look sad. The Bear was fantasizing about a salmon roughly the size of Scarlett Johansson, but realized the whole thing was so much spoiled meat. Awful.

One might say it was meant to look cheesy as a parody. Well, then how to explain the gay sailor number?

We have Channing Tatum's homosexual subtext sailor song-and-dance number. It is a good number, and competently executed by talented dancers. The Bear supposes he is happy someone still has the ability to do something right. The problem is, it watches like they spliced in Gene Kelly footage from a different picture. Here, it goes on and on, and seems out of place. It is as if they said, "Let's flip to an alternate dimension where we really are filming a musical comedy." It falls flat as a too-long, not-funny, tasteless joke.

In 1951 the producer - no doubt MGM's genius of musicals Arthur Freed - would have been called up for a special chat with management. Ed Mannix would probably have been there. If the joke is MGM had gay dancers, guess what? No one cared in 1951. No one cares now. Red Skelton was walking with an actress and they passed a flowerbed of pansies. "Look, the Freed Unit," Skelton cracked. Certainly no one was going after them, so this is another scene in search of a not only a joke, but a justification.

A scene where a Catholic, a Jew, a Greek Orthodox and a Protestant walk into a bar- no. That at least might be funny. Mannix debating the nature of the Deity at a conference table left the Bear snuffling for the joke. That the long-suffering Mannix is left to conduct the First Council of Nicea? It is straight from Mel Brooks, if Mel Brooks wasn't funny. Not to mention absurd. Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner and Harry Cohn (Columbia),  who were all Jews, could care less what Jews thought. The joke was that Hollywood was a place where Jews made pictures to sell Catholic theology to Protestants.

And that was true. Catholic prelates set the moral thermostat in America, and Mayer and others knew it.

The Bear found the Confession scenes offensive, as well as the jokey manner the Crucifixion location was handled. Granted, it is filming of the event, so maybe that's just the Bear.

What we are left with is a picture about Hollywood that does not look or feel like Hollywood.

The Russians are Coming!

Worst of all, a group of screenwriters who look like Communists take part in the main conflict of the thin plot. 

There are only two articles of faith in Hollywood.
  1. There were no Communists in Hollywood, and efforts to find them were witch hunts.
  2. The Communists in Hollywood were brave martyrs who had their careers ruined.
The truth is that there were Communists, especially among the writers. The Coens play this hallowed lore for laughs. A group of nutty writers have a sort of Communist book club based out of an oceanfront house. For revolutionaries, they seem harmless enough, despite their undeniable links to Mother Russia. 

The Bear doubts the Coens are skeptical about the sacred lore of the persecuted Communist writers. He thinks they are pulling that lore into the cynical present, where we can now laugh at people who thought there were Reds in Hollywood. Some actors who had gone to bat for suspected Communists at the time, such as Humphrey Bogart, said he had been sold out when he learned some suspects - like Dalton Trumbo - had earlier admitted to being Communists. Indeed Trumbo, who had written Exodus and Spartacus (uncredited) had been a proud Party member.

Either that, or they are painting the revered Hollywood Ten as goofballs. The Bear will win Powerball when that happens. Why, such producers would be... blacklisted! 

Anyway, this leads to another ridiculous, unfunny, rub-your-nose-in-the-idea-there-were-any-Communists-in-Hollywood scene.

The Big Speech

The Coens' Mannix is not above slapping stars back and forth to put some sense in them. (The Bear doubts the "physical property" would be slapped in their valuable closeup, but it's funny with Clooney.) The best scene in the movie is where a radicalized actor - George Clooney's star of the Biblical epic, dressed in his Roman armor - lolls his head back at the ceiling in Mannix's office and starts badmouthing big boss out east "Nick Skank." 

Brolin gives Clooney a slap-and-backhand while giving him a speech that could come right out of 42nd Street. Don't badmouth the management. Everybody's depending on you. The director, the script girls, etc. As a terrified Clooney starts out the door, Mannix delivers a realistic touch. He smiles, and adds, "Go out there and be a star." Now, that, at least, rings true.

Biting Off More of Hollywood Than They Could Chew

Part of the problem is that the Coens unnecessarily bit off more they they could chew, or had to. The funny scenes are the on the small sets: Clooney getting slapped around for the good of the movie industry, and the "would that it were so simple" scene.

Finally, this is a movie looking for a plot, although that itself is a Coen trademark. Mannix walks around doing a bunch of different, unconnected stuff. Fine. But we remember so many payoffs in other Coen movies, starting with the Looney Tunes Raising Arizona starring a decent, but dim Nicholas Cage, and a steely Holly Hunter. "Son, you got a panty on your head." And Fargo's, "And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper." It turns out to be a movie looking for a lot of things. Things the Coens used to deliver.

No doubt the Coens are film making geniuses of historic importance. They release new movies on a regular basis, and they are amazingly versatile. But when you look at the Communists in Hail Caesar, the German nihilists in The Big Lebowski come to mind. 

Say what you will, in the days of the moguls, somebody would have told the writer thanks, then asked him what his next project was, and afterwards filed this script in the "Never to be Filmed" drawer after he left. Maybe the Coens will get over themselves and recover their quirky genius.

Would that it were so.

14 comments:

  1. I'm sorry, Bear, but I loved it. A movie that admitted how truly unAmerican the Commies were! And how many of them there were, and just how stupid the fellow travellers were to fall for it!

    Bear, they got away with making a movie where the gay guy WAS an anti American society spy! Who else could pull that off? It's completely brilliant, and they got away with it because somehow, some Hollywood types are sure that somehow, this must be a film making fun of the Catholics, except it isn't. He's devout. In the way that most of us should be, confessing even our self lies and white lies to our spouse.

    Note he "fixes" things by having the girl get married, by saving a woman's career, and by making a honest kid into a movie star.

    And George Clooney may not be brilliant or of acting stature, but he is the best "good egg" in all of Hollywood to let them make such fun of him like that.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. I am sincerely happy you enjoyed it. Clooney is reliable in a comic role. I will completely take of my Smokey Bear hat at any evidence that the Coens are cuckoos in Hollywood's nest and are really subverting the lore of the Hollywood Ten. Maybe I have overthought it, but, as for that bit, I think you have been double-crossed. The joke is on the dimwits who still think Hollywood is not, or ever has been, a haven for Communists. This is current events to them. Trumbo recently had a movie made about him with Brian Cranston. There is zero chance they are making fun of the revered writers and siding with Lela Rogers and her daughter Ginger as well as Ronald Reagan who were real-life two-fisted Commie fighters! Thanks for the chance to work a Ginger reference in, though.

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  2. A P.S. on Mannix. Yes, he was Catholic. Yes, he had a cozy arrangement where his wife had an affair with TV's Superman George Reeves, while Mannix was free to whatever. There are persistent questions about Reeves' death after devastating Mannix's wife by breaking up with her. Catholics didn't get divorced, but who knows if they offed the guy that broke off convenient affairs with their wives.

    Given the above, I thought it was interesting that they portrayed his domestic life as an impeccable 2.1 child household with a completely domesticated wife. I think the tension between doing what he does, and being who he is (in the movie) works. Interesting that the alternative is Lockheed, clearly manufacturing top secret weaponry of death, which makes being a Hollywood fixer look not so bad. Who is worse? A bunch of half-witted pinko writers, or a Merchant of Death. I play the Pope Francis card.

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  3. Replies
    1. No, just the longest. Some people like it. I think it depends if you buy into the Communist writers as idiots, or if you think (as I do) the Coen brothers are having a grand old send-up of HUAC in a highly satirical way. Bears can smell satire like forest fires.

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  4. I won't watch it ever....I've already seen it through the Bear.

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  5. Did you see the Coen bros remake of True Grit?

    I thought it was pretty good. Closer to the novel. Hard not to like Jeff Bridges as Rooster.

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    Replies
    1. I did not. Just not a western fan. But the Coen brothers are nothing if not versatile. Not just their movies, but their work on scripts, credited or otherwise. I do like them, but it seems like anytime Hollywood tries to look at itself the talent behind the project seems too close. I still have a sour taste in my mouth about No Country for Old Men. Please, Coen brothers, don't become the German nihilists from The Big Lebowski, a wonderful movie that is truly sui generis.

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    2. Exception: Sunset Boulevard. (1950) Billy Wilder co-wrote and directed. Difficult Austrian director Erich von Stroheim plays "Max!" Lots and lots of big names. Hollywood then was going through a crisis as the era of the big studios was ending, and something called "television" is alternately dismissed or feared.

      Now that was a Hollywood picture that despite its bizarro elements did not get cute with Hollywood itself.

      David Lynch's Mulholland Drive naturally comes to mind after that. I think that worked as a cautionary tale of how Hollywood can chew people up and spit them out. Some haunting scenes and a grand puzzle.

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    3. Sunset Boulevard is one of my favorite movies and I watch it whenever it's on TCM. I'm not sure what it is about Norma Desmond I find so appealing. I guess I can emphathize with someone whose time has come and gone and refuses to acknowledge that fact up to a point of insanity and murder.

      I like anything written or directed by Billy Wilder. 5 graves to cairo, stalag 17, witness for the prosecution I watch every time they are on...

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    4. Wow, there is just so much going on. Director Von Stroheim was a god at MGM, or at least thought he was. He spent a fortune on one film buying stuff for sets that would never be visible. He was the archetype of the authoritarian Germanic director with the jodhpurs and riding crop.

      I wonder how much Wilder realized that the silent era, whose demise he was giving a send-off, was not the only Hollywood era that was doomed. Louis B. Mayer was deposed at MGM, in favor of lightweight Dore Schary, who did not last long. Mayer died in '57. The studio era, and the very concept of "stars" would not survive much longer.

      Anyway, whether intentional or not, Hollywood should have felt someone walking over its grave when it was released in 1950.

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    5. I confess that I don't know any of the history of hollywood. I just like the movies. It's likely best if I don't know TOO much.

      I watched about 15 mins of Hollywoodland.
      "Investigating" George Reeves "suicide"

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    6. Never saw it, but have read about it. I have finished a very weighty biography of L. B. Mayer called The Lion of Hollywood. Now I admit I'm reading a rather dubious biography of Eddie Mannix. The pictures grab some people. I want to know everything, but I don't really know all that much. Instead of the studio system turning out reliable movies like Henry Ford turned out cars, we have independent filmmakers like the Coen brothers, net worth $80 million. Franchises and reboots don't bode well, and outfits like HBO appeal to people who are too stupid to find nude women online.

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  6. Give HBO some credit for Game of Thrones. It inadvertently confirms my faith in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Despite the fact that, an atheist(who seems to be unapologetically perverted), made it as an anti Lord of the Rings. Nothing is nothing, but we know that God is not nothing, God Is. His Truth cannot be refuted, only rejected, to our everlasting suffering.

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