Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Living In A Community

It’s valid to ask whether it matters if we even like a film. Some films don’t want to make that easy on us anyway. But how valid is a film if we don’t like it? And if we can accept that it has a certain amount of worth regardless, does that mean the film is doing its job? Released at the very end of November 2012 when it immediately died at the box office, KILLING THEM SOFTLY is set during the financial crisis that occurred during the 2008 election season which automatically brings a certain amount of didacticism to the storyline, a SHAMPOO sort of vibe to make us automatically question what it all means. I wasn’t entirely certain what it meant at the time myself, fresh after the re-election we’d just gone through and what a more innocent time that was. On that opening weekend KILLING THEM SOFTLY wasn’t exactly a film I particularly enjoyed aside from a few isolated moments but there were a few things in there that stuck with me. It’s possible the film means more now what with everything currently going on but I’m still not sure about that and it probably doesn’t matter very much, anyway. After all, these days it’s tough to figure out if any film matters. The way things are right now, it’s understandable to wonder if anything makes sense but that doesn’t mean any of it does.
During the financial crisis of the ’08 election season ex-con and dry cleaning business owner Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola, Johnny Sacramoni on THE SOPRANOS) recruits Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn, Director Krennic in ROGUE ONE) to rob a mob-run card game, knowing that they have a good shot at getting away with it. He knows this since wiseguy Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) who runs the game once pulled the exact same heist, admitted that he robbed his own game, and basically got off with a slap on the wrist so naturally the powers that be will assume he’s pulling the same job again. The robbery goes off just as planned, with Trattman fingered right away but the mob brings in enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to take care of the situation, figure out if Trattman was really the guy, then find who was really responsible, restoring order so the games can continue and the money can keep flowing.
“There’s a plague coming,” Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan says about this country at one point and looking around the real world at the moment I guess he was right. KILLING THEM SOFTLY was directed by Andrew Dominik, his follow-up to THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD which also starred Pitt; that film was long, languid, dreamy and haunting so it makes a certain amount of sense that the follow-up is basically the opposite—short, sharp, nasty, ugly. And unlike JESSE JAMES which was a film I wanted to dive deep into and just swim around for a while getting lost in its melancholy, I barely want to spend any time at all in KILLING ME SOFTLY and even now watching it again I wonder why the fuck I have to be in this world which is dirty and unpleasant and not much fun at all. Though set during a specific time, KILLING ME SOFTLY doesn’t take place anywhere in particular, that no name city gimmick which isn’t anything new but is presumably part of the point here, that this is what America has essentially become. The 1974 novel “Cogan’s Trade” which it’s based on was set in Boston (no surprise since it’s by George V. Higgins, author of THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE; Dominik wrote the screenplay) and some dialogue indicates that’s where they probably are even though it doesn’t look anything like the place and was actually shot in New Orleans with nothing to identify it as such. If it wasn’t for the news reports playing on TV and campaign billboards overhead we’d barely know when the film is set anyway; unless I’m mistaken, there aren’t even any cell phones used, as if this low level mob world really is stuck back in the 70s. It’s easy to believe that nobody would get decent cell reception anyway since from the looks of things that plague Jackie Cogan talks about has already arrived, just as it’s arrived for us now, the entire nameless city having the look of scorched earth and you just know that nothing will ever grow there again. Which is starting to sound familiar.
The narrative bluntly parallels the two financial crises, the real world intersecting with the mob world, bickering over who’s going to get punished for this robbery whether it was their fault or not and it’s a little heavy handed, snatches of W. speeches practically commenting directly on plot developments. Since it becomes the point more than anything it all overwhelms the narrative but since there really isn’t anyone to ‘care’ about it all becomes a little clinical, almost as if we were watching a film about a worldwide financial crisis set on another planet. Even some of the plot developments are basically reported to us, information learned offscreen then reported secondhand later on. On a purely cinematic level the whole thing becomes so skillful in how alienating it’s willing to be that I kind of admire how the approach all becomes more about the scummy vibe than anything. Even the sound mix is downright Lynchian at times making each rundown building seem alive with subterranean noises. The camerawork courtesy of cinematographer Greig Fraser (recently the DP of both LION and ROGUE ONE) is almost reptilian in the way it seems to follow behind the characters and at times it’s a little mesmerizing. The big robbery sequence is particularly impressive in how it drags that quiet tension out even with those stupid dishwashing gloves they have on, playing almost as a short film in itself with minimal dialogue and in that silence we can tell exactly what the card players are thinking as well as how Ray Liotta’s poor bastard Trattman knows they’re thinking he’s in on all this. It’s isolated moments like that which work best throughout, not necessarily connected to the larger narrative as if the film itself can’t ever bother to get interested in the actual story, knowing that some clarity to a few story beats would help but not bothering—how many scenes are even in the film? 25? 30? Even if Dominik decided that the fractured nature of the storytelling was more appropriate at least he shoots the hell out of some of those individual moments and in its own way there’s barely a wrong shot in the film, the camera always knowing who to fix on at any moment and how far away to stay from them, keeping scenes visually active by breaking them up into sections but too often the wordiness of the dialogue gets lost in it all as if Dominik was staging for the visuals instead of the dialogue. To be honest it was a help when I decided to turn on the subtitles to help follow along with the plot which clarified a few things but also made me wonder about holes that weren’t plugged in, making the film seem more like a collection of stylish scenes than a complete story.
Maybe that’s partly why it all seems to end up in kind of a dead end since that story never seems to matter as much as the message and it’s a film where a few of the alleged leads barely even mattered anyway which is part of the point, just like plenty of people in the real world barely seem to matter either. I’m not even sure how interested it is in subverting the expectations of being a genre piece let alone just playing as a straight ahead crime thriller. It also feels like pieces are missing so it’s no surprise to read that the initial cut was considerably longer—Sam Shepherd appears briefly as a character who is referred to throughout, as if there’s a lot of backstory involving him, but in the final version it’s little more than a cameo. It’s left to us to find the meaning in some of those pieces, the phrase ‘smart guys’ heard a few times as in “We’re not the only smart guys who are going to think of this” but those supposed brains don’t take any of them very far. Frankie and Russell are only doing the job because there’s nothing better to do, at least one of them perfectly happy to sit around in a drugged out haze for ten minutes of screentime while the other gets more and more convinced that his life isn’t worth a damn.
Brad Pitt, the marquee name playing the alleged lead role, doesn’t turn up until close to a third of the way into this ninety-odd minute movie and it’s almost as if he becomes the main character by default since nobody else has the inclination to take on that responsibility so he only does it to get all this over with. He’s not an audience surrogate—in some ways that’s Scoot McNairy’s character, representing all of us who get fucked over and are barely even the lead characters in our own story. Pitt, on the other hand, introduced as Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around” is heard, lyrics telling us this is the man “who knows who to free and who to blame”. In this world he may be The Man, the one who knows how to get the fucking job done, more than the guys in charge do, but he’s still just a middle man. It doesn’t matter what he believes, it doesn’t even matter what the truth is. If people think one guy did it, he did it. Things just need to get back to normal. It’s like there are three levels to these crooks—the dregs on the bottom who are just trying to scrape by, the ones who actually can get the job done but usually get fucked and the (mostly unseen) money men on top who just want the money continually flowing to them so they get more. That never changes. It’s all done with pitch dark humor as chirpy song cues like “Live Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” play as it goes pummeling into the brick wall of bleakness. There’s a film to be made featuring a running gag where a mob tough guy like Ray Liotta is beaten up multiple times as other mob guys calmly discuss the situation but this one willingly takes it into nastiness, ugliness and not only wants to be ugly since that’s the way the world is, it has to be.
And much of the reason I’m writing about the film at all involves the great and much-missed James Gandolfini, in for just a few scenes as fellow hitman Mickey Fallon but those scenes wind up transforming the film, obviously even more now than they did at the time. Introduced getting off a plane from New York as Nico’s “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” plays with a few W. Bush soundbites cutting in to the imagery, from the moment we see him he’s not at all the tough guy we’re expecting, but a walking shambles who looks like he’s going to fall over any second. He’s the Willy Loman of hitmen, dragging his tiny suitcase alongside him, a lifelong scumbag facing jail time for the smallest possible reason considering all the shit he’s already done and it’s so fucking poignant. Essentially, James Gandolfini is Twentieth Century America, lumbering his way into this modern world and a total fucking mess, downing a huge beer almost in one gulp with the clock ruthlessly ticking away from him. This wasn’t the actor’s final role but it’s still hard not to associate his death less than a year later with this and this was one of the things I flashed on after hearing he died, with much of the rest of the film already having left me and it’s still what I think about now. Granted, parts work as an extension of certain themes dealt with better during the run of THE SOPRANOS and this is almost a mirror version of Tony a few extra years down the line having safely walked out of Holsten’s (as we all know he did) after eating those onion rings but we know Tony himself would never put up with this shit. The guy here has totally given up, drifting off in his mind to boozing and whores and the way things never really were and ready to explode if someone suggests otherwise so it’s all for the best if he just fades away offscreen, never seen again. That’s two SOPRANOS actors along with the lead of GOODFELLAS in this film meant to drain away what they once were so it’s all now just another business run by white guys, here in the form of go-between Richard Jenkins, no longer any difference between them and the politicians fretting about Wall Street.
The film has those scenes, those moments, which become so strong it almost doesn’t matter about vague confusion brought on by the plot or how the statement willingly overwhelms the narrative, whatever narrative there is. Since it tries to go to extremes, even on that level it doesn’t always work for me like the death scene scored to Ketty Lester singing “Love Letters”, maybe the biggest misstep in the film partly since BLUE VELVET already owns that song but also because the overwhelming CGI imagery of the bloodletting misses what’s happening between the people involved. At least some of KILLING THEM SOFTLY has stayed with me, I’ll give it that much, moments like Gandolfini chewing out that waiter bringing him his drinks or Pitt telling a lackey to put back the meager tip of a dollar he just left on a table. And there’s the ’08 election which everyone is aware of (Gandolfini complains about TV showing "all that election shit" in a deleted bit on the Blu) but, just like in SHAMPOO, few seem to actually care what happens because what will it matter. THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD always makes me sad when I watch it, getting lost in that feeling of regret and destroyed dreams but this one just makes me want to take a shower to scrub all this out of my head so I guess the film is doing its job. Set in 2008 and made in 2012, in 2017 it makes more sense than it ever did. Maybe when it came out the way it was saying that hope and change thing was bullshit wasn’t what we wanted to hear. Now, several years after that and in the shit we’re in right now it doesn’t seem like it goes far enough. “The world is shit. We’re all just on our own,” goes some dialogue late in the film, spoken by someone who knows all too well what’s coming.
It all ends on Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan, more or less the lead, talking about money. He’s the only one in the movie who can get things done and even he’s pissed off over whether he’s going to get paid. Then President-Elect Obama gives his victory speech as Pitt walks through the streets, fireworks going off and an old timey version of “It’s Only a Paper Moon” heard but no one cares about the hope supposedly in the air. Now that we’ve arrived on the other side of all that possibility, it’s pretty clear that things aren’t going to suddenly get better since, as we all know, it’s easier to make things bad than to make them good. All that matters is if someone keeps the money flowing. And yes, none of us are innocent either. We’ve all fucked over someone. We’ve all been fucked. We all sob about it in the middle of the night while “Windmills of Your Mind” plays, at least that’s what I assume. Jackie Cogan talks about wanting to keep a distance from that carnage since getting attached to any of this, getting emotional, is just trouble. Even guilt is a waste of time. It’s not a movie I particularly enjoy but it does feel valid and so fucking what how it makes me feel. Partly because it’s skillfully made, partly because of Gandolfini, partly because of how willingly alienating it is, partly because I suspect it’s more than a little bit right as we face 2017.
Some of the best Brad Pitt roles are when he seems to know the entire film isn’t on his shoulders so he’s able to relax, it's interesting just to watch him settle in as the scene plays out. He holds back at the right times here, letting certain actors he’s in scenes with take the spotlight particularly during Gandolfini’s scenes, waiting for just the right moment to explode. In totally nailing the film's last moment he also plays very well against Richard Jenkins’ dry annoyance which makes for some of the best comic moments in the film--the way Jenkins plays it in particular makes me wonder how early 70s Peckinpah might have approached this material. Along with the tragic majesty of James Gandolfini, Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn make for an impressive pair of Ratso Rizzo-Rosencrantz/Guildensterns, bringing a pathetic humanity to the film with the fear in their eyes giving off a palpable stench. It’s especially true with McNairy over multiple viewings playing a guy who almost has a few intelligent thoughts poking out of his brain only he knows that he’s fucked from the get go. It’s tough to tell how much the film really cares about that—the clinical approach makes me wish we got more of such moments from some of the actors, like Ray Liotta who seems maybe cast more for who he is than what he can do. And speaking of Peckinpah, even he had more of an interest in woman and there are almost none here, mostly only talked about in not always very nice ways--pretty much the only female speaking role is the hooker played by Linara Washington. When we do hear about others they’re wives, girlfriends and most of what’s said involves cluelessness and regrets, just as they’re clueless about everything else. Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan stays either unimpressed or just silent, knowing there’s nothing to say. Maybe he’s just seen it all already.
You’re all alone, the film says, not in a community. You’re by yourself. Not a nice message, but lately it seems to be the way it is. And what does it matter if I don’t like the film anyway. It’s not asking me to like it, it’s merely displaying a view of the world from the vantage point of some pretty good seats facing scorched earth. KILLING THEM SOFTLY is bleak and unpleasant but of course we all know what that’s like these days. Just because I can’t bring myself to ‘like’ it, whatever that matters anyway, doesn’t mean I disregard it. And you don’t have to like any movie. You could simply walk out of the theater, shut it off, leave the room, move on to the next one. But once you’ve seen a film, even part of it, you still might be forced to remember it. It’s in your life. There’s nothing you can do about that and sometimes you still may even think about it. Doesn’t mean you want to. Doesn’t mean that life is fair because it’s not. The cruelty goes on. There are plenty of people ready to see to that and keep on making sure they kill you softly.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

To Hasten An End To History

Facing the future. Right now it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s there in front of us, refusing to get out of the way and it’s very possible we’re fucked. I try to remember that at some point in the future the age we’re living in right now will itself be the past, which is about as optimistic as I can get at the moment. As for the present, HAIL, CAESAR! may not be the best film of 2016 (although I’m not ruling out that maybe it is) but it’s certainly one of my favorites if not my absolute ‘favorite’ whatever that’s supposed to mean anyway. At the very least, no other film in the entire year gave me this much pleasure (a few came close—THE NICE GUYS, yes, and recently there was Jim Jarmusch’s PATERSON) and if other people don’t feel that way, well, they could always just see it again a few more times. As the eternal depression that was 2016 grinded forward something about what the film was saying, or at least said to me, began to feel more and more potent so once the Blu came out it became one of my default choices for what to put on late at night as I refused to fall asleep, waiting for those phone calls I knew wouldn’t come. At some point we’ll hopefully be looking back at this horrible period as the past, just as the unknown future this film’s characters are facing now is the present, more or less. That might be a good thing. Or maybe not. It’s complicated.
HAIL, CAESAR! is of course another test to try to figure out just how much the Coen Brothers mean what they’re saying or if we should stop worrying about all that. Their previous film INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS was also about somebody grinding away through the job that was their life and the life that was their job, not knowing that what’s about to come along will upend their entire universe. In the early 50s Hollywood of this film there are signs of what’s to come and a few implications that none of this is going to last but even though a few of the characters view such events as a given, the Coens seem to be saying that anyone who states with certainty what lies ahead, particularly when it comes from a group calling itself “The Future”, is bound to miss a few details. We always seem to miss things, as it turns out, and they always seem to disappear forever when we’re not looking. In some ways it really is that simple.
In 1951 Hollywood Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the powerful ‘Head of Physical Production’ at Capitol Pictures, is dealing with a wide variety of problems in a typical day, made more stressful by how he is trying to decide whether to accept an enticing job offer from Lockheed which would mean more money and less stress. All at once he has to deal with issues ranging from production of that year’s prestige picture HAIL, CAESAR! starring marquee name Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) to inserting cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into a swank romantic melodrama directed by the uppity Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) to the impending pregnancy of bathing beauty Deanna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) that has to be kept secret. But everything is immediately exacerbated by the realization that Baird Whitlock has suddenly been kidnapped from the CAESAR set. Mannix scrambles to do something about this while preventing word from getting out as he continues to handle each crisis and try to finally make the decision whether to leave his job for possibly greener horizons.
As usual, the universe created by Joel and Ethan Coen operates by its own rules. HAIL, CAESAR! is a screwy shell game involving its own versions of certain Hollywood legends displaying some affection towards the past but also tweaking it just enough. Mostly set within a single day showing us the workings of Capitol—a massive factory of soundstages which oddly doesn’t appear to include any sort of backlot—although just as something like THE HUDSUCKER PROXY seemed to combine elements of different decades into its late 50s setting the rules of this Hollywood seem to be a little fluid as well such as how Laurence Larentz’s MERRILY WE DANCE looks more like a 30s movie or how I sort of doubt the B-western LAZY OL’MOON starring Hobie Doyle would have received such a gala premiere. But what do I know, right? This is Hollywood, after all. Eddie Mannix was of course the real name of a legendary MGM fixer just as his unseen boss Nicholas Schenck is a reference to the Lowes Inc. president who presumably served in the same capacity as he does here. The story of the real Mannix involves an awful lot of cobwebs and nastiness (the episode of the podcast You Must Remember This focusing on Mannix goes into details on some of the worst of it) so I’m not convinced that the character of the same name being played by Brolin hasn’t been involved in a few such things as well but as presented here even if he’s slapping someone around it’s all in the context of the greater good of the studio, all the better for it to provide that enlightenment and entertainment for the masses.
HAIL, CAESAR! travels from soundstage to soundstage venerating those films I’m constantly watching on TCM but tweaking the people who made them just enough since, after all, they weren’t gods brought down to this world courtesy of MGM. Through this prism of Eddie’s conflict it’s also about figuring out your own place in the world and how the god you pray to relates to that whether it’s real or false or just real to you if it helps you understand deep down how you fit into things. There’s a nimble breeziness to it all as the movie follows Eddie Mannix around, countered by the weighty nature to the conflict, absurd as it all is. After all, he’s a ridiculous character in a ridiculous film dealing with ridiculous problems but in his head nothing about that conflict could be more serious. It’s the question of what does it mean how you spend your day, what does any of it mean. Occasionally I wonder if the film is totally accurate when it comes to period aspect ratios or low long it would actually take for something to happen in the real world but then decide I don’t really care or just remember that Capitol Pictures isn’t the real world as Mr. Cuddahy from Lockheed reminds Mannix and us as well. The film asks which one is the real world but knows the answer is whatever we decide for ourselves.
Like a few others by the Coen Brothers it took more than one viewing for it to fully click for me—maybe two this time. Their films sometimes seem a little thrown together at first, even haphazard in their plotting and this one wasn’t helped by a trailer which didn’t really represent what it actually was. Now, close to a year later like, say, the all-holy BURN AFTER READING (which maybe plays better than ever right now) the film feels like it’s already being undervalued and by this point as I’ve been watching it practically weekly there barely seems to be a single false step, barely a piece that doesn’t go together as I get lost in the Coen wordplay which maybe feels sharper than ever before which a undeniable logic to the ridiculousness which takes each scene to a different level. One small thing I’ve grown to appreciate over multiple viewings is simply watching Brolin’s Mannix listening to other people make their arguments as the wheels turn in his head, trying to make each problem somehow work. And then there are the communist writers who call themselves The Future laying out their own beliefs to the movie star Baird Whitlock who only partly grasps what they’re saying. They react negatively to someone innocently suggesting they’ll ‘name names’ and these writers have presumably been blacklisted but it’s never stated outright, the film is cagey that way. Offering finger sandwiches, smugly proud at whatever meager message they’re sneaking into the films they write they may talk a good game and their credits are impressive (“I wrote ALL the ALL THE WAY pictures!”) but, communists or not, they’re still just schmucks with Underwoods almost as if the film is saying they’re so certain in their beliefs that they can’t have any real answers at all. Capitol Pictures—not to be confused with the Kapital-with-a-K that Baird Whitlock learns about—was also the name of the studio in BARTON FINK so the two films are presumably set in the same universe with a Wallace Beery conference room here to remind us of that actor’s former prominence. Barton himself is nowhere to be seen among these writers, I’m going to guess because he actually did name names when called before HUAC and they won’t have anything to do with him. A shot of waves crashing onto rocks seems like a deliberate FINK echo only with two instead of the one seen in that film—maybe at a certain point HAIL, CAESAR! will turn out to be the middle section of a Hollywood trilogy to give us three rocks that the surf in Malibu crashes up against and we can finally get the long promised OLD FINK, if the Coens are really serious about making it. I continue to hold out hope even though I’m still not sure that they might be joking.
It’s a lot of random silliness which in the end may not be that random or that silly, with narration by Michael Gambon veering back and forth between the life of Eddie Mannix and the events in ancient Rome being portrayed in the Capitol HAIL, CAESAR!, treating one dismissively and one with every ounce of portentous grandeur but seemingly accepting of the glory provided by this movie studio in the end. It’s difficult to spend too much time contemplating exactly what the film is trying to say about this parallel when it seems just as interested in having Laurence Laurentz spend several minutes trying to get Hobie Doyle to say one single sentence, trippingly, to somehow make it seem like the cowboy star belongs in a tuxedo or the sharpness of the wordplay in Mannix’s meeting with the religious figures there to consult on his biblical epic that he hopes will offend no one, a roomful of men searching for an answer to a question they can barely grasp, unable to agree on any one simple theological matter.
And there’s the beauty of Tilda Swinton playing twin gossip columnists that the film basically makes into a throwaway joke or little things like Brolin’s trot as he desperately tries to get away from Thessaly (or is it Thora?) when a phone call comes in. There’s even a details like the Malibu pad Whitlock wakes up in which as fake houses go is about as stunning as the one near Mount Rushmore in NORTH BY NORTHWEST (all praise to DP Roger Deakins, production designer Jess Conchor and everyone involved). And in the middle of all that is simple, glorious moment of serenity as Hobie Doyle waits to pick up the movie star Carlotta Valdez (ha ha) for his premiere and he just takes the chance to twirl his rope, not a care in the world. The later scene with the two of them getting to know each other is apparently as relaxed as anyone in this world can ever get, two people thrown together by their studio for publicity purposes who just click, for once no one onscreen has any worries. The thing is, even if you’re “the guy” you still sometimes wonder how you fit into it all, if people are really paying more attention to someone else. Even Hobie Doyle gets a little insecure by how people are paying attention to something else in the movie he stars in and the characters may sometimes be unsure as to their place in this world but they fit in perfectly to this version of Hollywood, to this world. Sometimes those simple glories in life just happen in a flash and we need to sometimes be willing to let them play out.
All right, I’m not sure if every beat holds and as much as it rushes through Mannix’s day with purpose I can’t help but wish if it could linger for an extra moment here or there, particularly that date with Veronica Osorio’s Carlotta Valdez or even if the film had paused near the end for an actual ‘final’ scene with Hobie. The acclaimed “No Dames” number featuring Channing Tatum doing a Gene Kelly bit which I never dislike and the sill behind it is obvious but it still has a close but no cigar feel for me, playing as even more of a spoof than Scarlett Johansson’s Esther Williams homage and, sure, everyone likes Channing Tatum but either the joke is just a little too obvious or maybe it even comes at the wrong point in the film since I often find myself pausing the film right at this point to take a quick break but if this is my biggest complaint then the film is doing ok.
HAIL, CAESAR! is the rare Coen Brothers film where the guy in a suit behind a desk is actually the lead, even if he does work for someone else behind another desk (hard to tell if he answers to anyone aside from Nick Schenck in NY—is Jack Lipnick still at Capitol in ‘51?) He’s not sure what his place is in the world, in a marriage where he and his wife never even look at each other in their one scene, racked with guilt over his betrayal of her, which is just smoking a few cigarettes, while ignoring the real problems. Hobie tips Mannix off on the uncertain behavior of extras which shows how on the ball he is but also brings up a few questions later on. Is Mannix even a principle at all or just an extra in all of these lives? How much does he, suffering for all of the sins around him, matter? In the Lockheed sales pitch their rep claims to represent the future and though Mannix doesn’t know it the studio he works for won’t be as powerful as it is forever, due to the imminent threat of television and other things, a modern day version of Ancient Rome which will most likely meet the bulldozer like MGM. It’ll all come crashing down, maybe around the point his ten year contract with Lockheed would have ended and even the real Mannix was dead by ’63. But maybe none of that matters. The Coens seem intrigued by the teachings of Professor Marcuse, but maybe feel that ‘the new man’ he talks about is not needed. It doesn’t matter who benefits, like when Danny Kaye has asked Baird Whitlock to shave his back, all that matters is to find what’s right in the world for yourself. To do your job the best you can, whether that job is taking the sins of the world upon yourself or merely the lowly occupation of Movie Star. Faith is a hard thing to come by, maybe harder than ever these days, almost as hard as it is to simply remember what that word is as we literally pray to the god of cinema. “He saw sin and gave love,” is what Baird Whitlock’s Roman centurion declares in his speech, speaking about either Christ or Eddie Mannix, in the search for what seems right.
Josh Brolin is note perfect the whole way through, spitting out his dialogue without a single false note and taking full command of every scene, bouncing off against his co-stars and saving big reactions for just the right moments. He fully commits to Mannix’s uncertainty and with just a glance we can always tell exactly what he’s thinking. Admirably wearing that ridiculous Roman costume for his entire role, George Clooney sails through his movie star role with the right cocky arrogance just as the idiot Baird Whitlock clearly sails through his own life, never thinking beyond the next thirty seconds and even when he learns he’s been kidnapped is never very concerned. He even does a Clark Gable impression at one point too. Alden Ehrenreich, the future-past Han Solo, is the one who practically walks away with the picture in how slippery and confident he makes Hobie Doyle, never the dumb guy some people think he is but always aware of how much he fits into a given situation. The other big names appear briefly, doing enough with that screentime that you wish a few of them could get an entire film, from the way one of Tilda Swinton’s twins pauses before stating the movie title ON WINGS AS EAGLES or the way Ralph Fiennes contorts his mouth utters the word ‘gamey’ or just the way Scarlett Johansson keeps that phony smile plastered on her face during the big Deanna Moran number. Frances McDormand has one scene as editor C.C. Calhoun and there’s the brief appearance by Jonah Hill—I guess a minute of screentime can get you on the poster but I can’t help but think that the big stars billed so high up on the poster recall how Christ himself is just a bit player in the HAIL, CAESAR! being made by Capitol. It almost makes sense how Hobie Doyle is the one we wind up paying attention to. With a few of the big names only in for brief periods of time it’s a few of the supporting players who really pop—Max Baker as the head communist writer, Heather Goldenhersh as Mannix’s loyal secretary, Robert Trebor as the desperately pleading HAIL, CAESAR! producer and Robert Picardo who kills in his one scene as the impatient rabbi (“Eh…I haven’t an opinion.”). Alex Karpovsky doesn’t even get a line as the photographer at the ‘study group’ which makes his glare as he takes George Clooney’s picture even funnier.
For now it feels important to ask if anything really matters anymore even as the waves continue to crash in on the neverending story of Hollywood. Last year may have been of one of the worst years any of us have ever known and now it’s the start of a year that may be even worse so it’s tough to know what to do. Does HAIL, CAESAR! offer any real answers or should I just be glad that I love this film as much as I do and just accept that for what it is? And where do we go from here? Is the ‘new man’ really on the way even if that wasn’t what ‘The Future’ had in mind? On the other hand, as the slogan of Hudsucker Industries once reminded us long ago, the future is now. And right now, at the beginning of 2017, what else do we have but that.