Eddie Mannix , in the Coen Brothers’ new movie, Hail, Caesar!, is not a devout or informed Catholic but he does like to confess. He’s not doing well with his plan of giving up smoking, as he promised his wife he would. The first words we hear in the film come from an unseen priest behind the screen in a church: ‘How long since your last confession?’ Mannix, his face half in shadow, says: ‘27 hours’. ‘It’s too often,’ the priest replies. ‘You’re not that bad.’
He’s not. He does all kinds of good deeds for the film studio he works for, Capitol Pictures, last seen in the Coens’ Barton Fink. He is concerned, for example, about the portrayal of Christ in the movie that provides the title for the one he is in: a grand epic with lots of Romans trudging about in a desert provided with triumphal arches, and a key moment when one of them, played by George Clooney, recognises the virtues of the preacher and rebel they are crucifying. Mannix’s question is ‘Does the picture of Jesus cut the mustard?’ He asks a panel diplomatically composed of four clerics: a Catholic priest, a Greek Orthodox priest, a rabbi, a Protestant pastor. The rabbi thinks the whole thing is ridiculous, since he knows Jesus is just a man. The others rather like the idea of their deity getting some expensive screen time, as long as it’s tastefully done. Mannix is baffled when they start talking about the incarnation. ‘Well, you see,’ the Catholic priest says, ‘Jesus is both God and man.’ Mannix says: ‘You mean God is split?’ The priest smiles as if his favourite question has come up once again. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘and no.’
The historical Eddie Mannix was an executive at MGM known for getting stars out of trouble, often to do with drinking or an interest in youth. He was played by Bob Hoskins in Hollywoodland (2006), and in Hail, Caesar! he is Josh Brolin, who cooks up a very good combination of the tough gangsterish manager and the put-upon, hardworking shmo.
His life is not easy. When Scarlett Johansson as DeeAnna Moran, graceful and charming in the water with a mermaid tail in the midst of an aquatic ballet chorus, rough and pouty when the take is over and she can stretch her legs, turns out to be pregnant, he has to get her married so that the studio can preserve her picture purity (and continue to make money). Both of her earlier, unpublicised marriages are over. She is indignant when Mannix suggests one of these men was a minor mobster. ‘Vince was not minor,’ she says. She doesn’t like any of the pretty boys Mannix has proposed. Then he has a brilliant idea. She could marry the child’s actual father. ‘You’re sure he’s the father?’ Mannix says. ‘Yeah, yeah, absolutely sure,’ DeeAnna says. And then as Mannix leaves the shot, ‘Pretty sure.’
Mannix rescues a starlet from a compromising photographic session, and pays the police to keep quiet, finds a new leading man for a high-society film called Merrily We Dance, fends off two gossip columnists, both played by Tilda Swinton, arranges for a couple of young stars to look as if they might be an item, and has several interrupted meetings with a man from Lockheed Martin who is offering him a high-level job, another relation to the heavens. Oh, and then there is the ostensible main business of the film.
In the Roman film Clooney is a tribune called Autolycus. He has lots of jovial strutting to do, and like his namesake in Shakespeare he is a ‘snapper-up of unconsidered trifles’ – in this case an unconsidered doped drink, which allows a couple of infinitely suspicious-looking characters to kidnap him and take him off to a California beach house, where he is held for ransom. With hindsight one of Mannix’s advisers tells him he should always think about the extras on a film in such cases: ‘You don’t know where they’ve come from.’ The same adviser offers one of the film’s greatest lines. ‘This is bad,’ he says when he learns of the kidnapping. ‘Bad for movie stars everywhere.’ Mannix pays the ransom without question, his asset is returned, and we get to see Clooney back in the picture, staring up at the cross and fumbling the lines that are supposed to make him and the studio great. A good comic climax, but it would be funnier if the deliverer were almost anyone other than George Clooney. He’s good at all kinds of things, but trying to make us laugh brings him out in a sweat of overachieving.
The kidnappers really are funny, though, a room full of communist writers who look like scientists but like to split hairs rather than atoms. One of them could be mistaken for Einstein, and another is called Marcuse. Their idea is to swap Clooney for a suitcase full of money they can send to Russia via submarine. They call themselves the Future. They are very genial, and Clooney, still in his Roman gear from the set, enjoys his conversations with them, indeed is half-converted to the cause. In a neat cross-over from one kind of fiction to another, one of the sailors we thought were part of a Capitol Pictures musical – in part because they performed a number called ‘No Dames’ and danced on the tables of a bar as if they were in Anchors Aweigh – turns out to be a sailor (and a communist), and can take the suitcase to the submarine. Or could if he didn’t drop it on the way.
Hail, Caesar! is not really a movie so much as set of exercises in parody tinged with nostalgia. But what is being parodied? Not Hollywood certainly, and not its famous old genres. Not the sheer crassness and unreality of the product, although these qualities are emphatically on display. Not the play politics of the communist conspiracy. Not Eddie Mannix and his fixing of whatever looks as if it might get out of hand, although this possibility may get us close to an answer. Perhaps the target is the memory of a fixable world – fixable on film in hyperbolic Technicolor ways, and fixable off-screen by money and cunning. The film’s finest sequence may complicate this thought a little, though.
An actor called Hobie Doyle, amiably played by Alden Ehrenreich, is a young star of cowboy films, from which we see a well-chosen excerpt: his horse comes when he whistles for it, he mounts it as it passes by at top speed, he does somersaults when he gets off, and swings himself up into a tree when he needs to. No pesky malefactor is ever going to keep up with him. For reasons unintelligible to everyone except Mannix’s boss, and especially unpersuasive to Mannix himself, Hobie is to be switched to the previously mentioned Merrily We Dance, an adaptation of a Broadway play already in production with Ralph Fiennes as the director. The joke seems crude – Gene Autry meets Noël Coward, say – but the tone here, as in the rest of the film, has those curious qualities the Coen brothers specialise in. Everything is slow, a little obvious, and whatever is funny is caught up in another effect, harder to name. In this case we can’t play the sophisticated East against the crude West, or the honest West against the mendacious East. There are simply two worlds that don’t meet, and we wonder why we are laughing so much. Hobie, complete with tuxedo and hesitant look, is to enter a drawing room, sit on a sofa, and deliver a line with ‘a mirthless chuckle’. He considers the phrase for a while, clearly baffled by the very idea. The line he is to say, in answer to a remark made to him, is: ‘Would that it were so simple.’ He says it awkwardly with his cowboy accent, has an intense tutorial with Fiennes, gets better but can’t stop overstressing the ‘t’s. In the scene as finally shot he says, after a professionally timed pause, and in a mid-continental accent: ‘It’s … complicated.’ This is either an evasion or a solution, depending on how you feel about the fixable world.