Fuelled by the star power of an A-list ensemble cast, ‘Hail, Caesar!’ was marketed as a comedy of the ‘laugh out loud’ variety, but the truth is somewhat different. Watching it in Sheffield with a multiplex audience, I only heard a handful of laughs, some murmurs of amusement, but mostly silence. No walk outs mind you, Coen Brothers films are never actually badly made, certainly not enough to provoke demands for a refund. There’s a level of craft and artistry at work that will keep their usual audiences in their seats for the duration. It’s just that Coens’ comedy is a peculiar and particular beast. Personally, I’ve found that with the exception of ‘The Big Lebowski’, I’ve gained more laughs from some of their dramas than their avowed comedies.
‘Hail Caesar’ was designed by the Coens as a relaxed ‘fun’ project – they claimed – in the manner of Bergman’s ‘Fanny and Alexander’. Set in the same fictional film studio world as ‘Barton Fink’ (1991) it’s an amiable amble through the backlots and sound stages, taking in the artificial worlds of each production, and the foibles of the residents. The film stages set pieces in celebration of golden age Hollywood e.g. a water spectacular with Scarlett Johannson’s knocked up star, a rollicking tap number featuring a closeted gay dancer (Channing Tatum), and a sub-Roy Rogers Western. These sequences succeed on their own terms as spectacle, but they are barely satirised, little of their comedic potential exploited. Of the two funniest sequences, one features studio head of production Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) courting approval from a panel of religious leaders for the studio’s Biblical epic ‘Hail, Caesar!’ but instead receiving what sounds suspiciously like internet reviewer snark. The other, which earns pride of place in the the film’s trailers, has debonair director Lawrence Laurenz (Ralph Feinnes) struggling to modulate the rodeo drawl of singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into the mirthless muttering of his melodrama ‘Merrily We Dance’. These sequences work on their own, but don’t drive the comedy or the film to a climax. Comic potential is leeched away by both the uneven pacing and a refusal to work the audience for laughs. On the EPK for ‘Hail, Caesar!’, the actors talk about their ultimate goal being to make the Coens guffaw. But not enough effort seems to have gone into transmitting the results to the audience. The Coens themselves seem oddly reluctant to get their hands stuck into the dirty business of mining for yuks.
Laying aside possible self-indulgence and a studio willing to let the well-organised and under-budget Coen productions basically make themselves, a gradual change in the brothers’ filmmaking may also be partly to blame. Since ‘Fargo’, the Coens have developed an aesthetic based on space, stillness and eloquent silence, bracketed by moments of fierce action. This approach flowered most noticeably on ‘No Country For Old Men’. Contrast this with the first visit to Capitol Pictures in ‘Barton Fink’. The omni-present, oppressively detailed sound design and intense performance style works the audience over like a couple of sweaty G Men. The characters in ‘Barton Fink’ are intense and explosive, like Michael Learner’s ‘bigger, louder, meaner’ studio head Jack Lipnick. Tony Shaloub’s irate producer is burning a hole in his intestine with stomach acid, practically climbing over his desk in agitation at Fink. The characters fill the story like Warner Brothers cartoons bouncing off the walls and hurtling into canyons. Lacking the nervous intensity of ‘Barton Fink’, ‘Hail Caesar!’ doesn’t exploit script, music, editing, sound, or physical performance to that extent. There are no zingers, no lines that explode a laugh. Mannix is the person who would be on the receiving end of Jack Lipnick’s rants (‘Let’s put a stop to that rumour – RIGHT NOW!’), but we don’t even hear a comedy screech emerging from the phone handset to make Mannix flinch, let alone a cartoon hand reaching out to strangle him.
Whilst ‘Hail, Caesar!’ lacks the correct pace for comedy, the other thing which hobbles it is that Mannix just isn’t funny. He’s really a dramatic character in a comedy story world. Charged with overseeing the Biblical epic that lends the film its title, Eddie is a pretty Old Testament sort of guy, slapping a starlet in the face for having to extract her from a ‘French postcard situtation’ at the start of the film, then boxing the ears of leading man Baird Whitlock, (George Clooney, giving the Coens the third iteration of his Idiot Trilogy) to knock sense back into his communism-addled skull. Stern and hard-boiled for most of the time, urbane and pleasant only when he needs to be, Mannix is the hub around which the wheel of Capitol Pictures rotates. He’s pragmatic, unknowable and never really makes any mistakes, making it hard for an audience to laugh at or even with him. A comic lead is usually the most flawed and un-self aware person in the whole film. A walking catastrophe who struggles uncomprehendingly against the forces of nature that trip him up time and time again. At the very start, Eddie sits in confession and tells a priest that quitting smoking is ‘so hard’ and almost seems on the point of tears. He is clearly talking about something else, presumably the burden of running the studio, but it’s never made manifest in the rest of the story, or Mannix’ behaviour. He is considering an offer from Lockheed, worrying that his job keeps him away from his family and having a proverbial day from hell. Still, Mannix is often more an observer of events, visiting the separate dramas in different parts of the studio complex, but never really risking anything of his own to solve them. He remains at the end of a phone to the ransom demands of deluded Communist scriptwriter cabal ‘The Future’, despatching Hobie Doyle as his avatar to drag Baird Whitlock back to his wits and his work.
Handing over the resolution of the arch plot to a secondary character is of course a heresy against the storytelling conventions of Hollywood product. However, This also seems to be a result of another trend that has evolved over several Coen films. Since ‘Fargo’, the Coens have enjoyed using peripheral characters as a Greek chorus to the action. In ‘Fargo’, Marge Gundersson and her husband discuss police work before bed, their humdrum domesticity throwing a strange limelight on the temporary insanity of greed (“And for what? A little bit o’ money”) that drives the action elsewhere. In a similar way, the CIA men in ‘Burn After Reading’ are left shaking their heads in bewilderment at the lethal, farcical shit show they are tasked with clearing off their desks. The apex of this trend is Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff in ‘No Country For Old Men’. Always a few steps behind the action, unable to prevent the main actors in the drama from sinking deeper into chaos, he shakes his head and ponders retirement and with it, his own approaching mortality. While this approach has worked in the Coens’ dramas, in ‘Hail, Caesar!’ it sabotages the comedy.
Michael Gambon’s laconic voice over narration is another tribute to classic Hollywood, but distances the audience from the action even further. His omniscient commentary illustrates the hierarchy on which the characters are arranged, depending on their level of agency. More than once this is illustrated by one set of characters observing another from above. At one point Mannix visits Frances McDormand’s editor, high up above the studio lighting gantries, to watch rushes for ‘Merrily We Dance’. He peers down at the created world of the studio bound drama, further enclosed in the tiny frame of a movieola screen. It calls to mind the characters in ‘A Matter Of Life and Death’ watching village life from their god-like vantage point in a camera obscura. Seen in that context, perhaps Mannix resembles a middle-ranking deity, walking through his creation and keeping an eye on things, nudging evolution here and there. Meanwhile, Old Testament levels of atomic tribulation await above them all. McDormand gets her neck tie tangled in the editing machinery and almost chokes, jamming the mechanism so that the chilly monochrome of drawing room melodrama blisters into fiery dribbles of melted celluloid, a visual rhyme for how the Soviet sub awaiting defector Channing Tatum could vapourise California.
With the sliding scale of problems in ‘Hail, Caesar!’ ranging from the macro political threat of nuclear obliteration to Eddie’s struggle not to spark up another cigarette, the choice between shepherding silly, temperamental film folk or taking the cushy gig in a company that just happens to be facilitating the road to Armageddon sits somewhere in the middle; the result is never seriously in doubt. What could have ignited the comedy in ‘Hail, Caesar!’ is if the unspoken dread of atomic wrath and pea-witted Hollywood denizens had properly collided. We are denied for instance the glorious sight of Baird Whitlock mustering his best Oscar-bait acting to avert World War III. Having spent a couple of hours in the world of Capitol Pictures, the camera pulls back atop a crane, putting the audience back in a godlike point of view, reducing the characters to ant-size on a large and lonely planet. Just like the characters, the audience are left to ponder the unknowable motives of the two creators of this world. As above, so below: Coen Brothers comedies, like life, never quite match their trailers.