The latest from multi-hyphenate siblings Joel & Ethan Coen is a kaleidoscopic extravaganza of half-formed thoughts and half-forgotten genres, a mishmash of Late Movie references and late night insights, a career-summarizing work that pairs the yearning search for metaphysical certainty in a violently random universe that has marked their 21st Century output with a ramblingly digressive celebration of the cinematic creativity that stands so boldly in denial of the dissolution of meaning that is the modern world. With a rollicking energy they haven’t employed since O Brother Where Art Thou, Hail, Caesar! shifts madly across the spectrum of studio-era Hollywood genres: musical numbers, screwball exchanges, singing cowboys, fedoras and shadows, drawing room dramas and celebrity gossip swirl around 28 hours in the life of Eddie Mannix, studio executive, as he navigates crises both large (the kidnapping of the star of his sword and sandal biblical epic by a ring of Communist screenwriters) and small (the unmarried pregnancy of an established star, the acting challenges and fledgling romance of a budding one), while weighing a job offer from outside the industry and trying to reconcile his devout Catholicism with the truth-stretching demands of his profession.
While it lacks the obvious seriousness of their more celebrated recent films (No Country for Old Men, Inside Llewyn Davis, A Serious Man), Hail, Caesar! should not be mistaken for slight. For beneath the chaos and jokiness lies a vastly more complex rendering of the universe than those more focused works. Balancing Mannix within a trinity of belief systems, the film counterposes Economics, Religion and Art as the means by which humans explain their universe. Each of those systems is split again into opposing sides: the Communist writers and a Capitalist Lockheed executive (and his amorphous counter-weight, a professional Person); four religious leaders debating the value of Mannix’s Jesus movie; the high (Laurence Laurentz’s sophisticated black and white melodrama, the Technicolor Biblical epic) and low (aquatic musicals both mermaid and naval, the genre pastiche that is the Western musical-comedy) in cinematic art. Befitting the Coens’ searching curiosity, all these potential systems are tried on for awhile, explored from within and taken on their own terms (George Clooney’s dim but affable star being indoctrinated into the mysteries of the Dialectic being a particular highlight), and befitting their self-consciousness, all are ultimately undermined. Even the film’s gloriously multi-valent final speech (celebrating “A truth not of words, but of light”) is marred by a final forgotten word (“faith”, naturally).
Whether one reads this self-consciousness as a smirking indifference to meaning, a wiseacre’s pose against human feeling and belief, or a sincere humility in the face of the incomprehensible weirdness of the world at large and American history and culture in particular, is a matter of personal perspective, I suppose. It seems to me that the Coens want desperately to believe in anything and see their inability to do so as either tragedy or farce or, more likely, both. As an encapsulating work, Hail, Caesar! compresses and references films from across their career, but the movie it most resembles is their greatest, The Big Lebowski, a work considered (by the critical establishment at least) minor on its release (following the acclaimed Fargo) that has with time revealed unfathomable depths. Lebowski, with its stoner-Zen willingness to simply accept the mystery of the universe as it is, comes the closet to reconciling this conflict at the heart of their filmography. While it’s impossible to say at this early date if Hail, Caesar! will prove as durable and profound a masterpiece, Alden Ehrenreich idly doing rope tricks while waiting for his arranged date with a starlet named after the ghost from Vertigo is as close to wonderful as cinema, and therefore the universe, gets.