Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Hail! .... HAIL CEASAR. Brilliant!

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

Writers/Directors: ETHAN COEN, JOEL COEN
Eddie Mannix: JOSH BROLIN
Baird Whitlock: GEORGE CLOONEY
Laurence Laurentz: RALPH FIENNES
Thora & Thessaly Thacker: TILDA SWINTON

I went for a lark.

I thought I'd go to the movies just this once for fun. No analysis, no timings in the back of the theater with my iPhone taking notes and risking getting kicked out. Pam was gone for the night, so I ate a Wendy's Apple Pecan Salad in the Emagine Theater parking lot as it started to snow. Went in, bought my Senior Discount ticket, got some chocolate covered almonds (Hey, Lent starts tomorrow), and sitting in my seat put in my new hearing aid so I could understand the dialogue.

I was expecting a brainless, escapism, night at the movies.


Here's a hint.

Hail, Caesar! is (at the same time) all about the fragility and splendor of being human. It is about the inability of humans to do what is right and their perseverance in trying to be better. It's about the darkness of life and the candles we can ignite to bring light into that darkness.  And, it's about how incompetent Hollywood can be and how, at the same time, utterly brilliant and talented the people there are. It's about the difficult of doing what is right and not what is easy.  And all of that under the mercy of our creator. It is a pure movie about the human condition and how we help each other in this dark valley of tears.

HAIL, CAESAR! was entertaining (after a while). I cringed at first...it took a while to figure out what was going on. Hey, it's the Coen brothers and they are two smart directors, but you have to stick with them—they will make you work. There were moments of profound seriousness and scenes that seemed obscure at best. And yet, there were scenes I could not stop laughing (although many of the jokes for me were filmmaking inside jokes. I've directed actors enough and been in editing rooms enough (even with upright Moviolas), that the moments were gut busters...with many homages to the greats of the industry.   There were repeated sends-up of Hollywood and it's ridiculous attempts to get things right but didn't. (When you see the rear view of Jesus on the Cross is not satire of Christianity, it's satire at Hollywood trying to tell the
story of Christ....big difference....don't be confused). There is a dance number that puts Gene Kelly to shame, and Esther Williams's grand water choreography makes an appearance. Enjoy the respites of talent, they're there to remind you of humanity's goodness and how the struggle is worth it.

Thus, I identified easily with the protagonist and his arc....Eddie Mannix, the CAPITAL studio head played by Josh Brolin. Watch him carefully. The movie is NOT about George Clooney's character Baird Whitlock, although Baird's predicament is what drives Eddie's primary, physical goal.

I'll watch it again and do a little amendment on the Moral Premise later. Let me know what you think.

March 20, 2016 (1 AM) in response to James Shiels in the comments below:

James, I wish more people would push back like you did. I've been involved in pre-prep on one shoot while supporting the production of another and so haven't had time to write more about HAIL, CEASAR, although I did see it a second time and took good notes which are now opened before me.

It's late at night...I've got 10 hours of production tomorrow...but I'll hack this out and clean it up later. Sorry for the typos. Hope they're not too bad.

Thank you for taking note of one of my "rules" that if a movie is popular it probably has a valid moral premise. But what I have also claimed is that a valid moral premise is no guarantee of success... because so much else is involved...like marketing, and...in the case of HAIL, CEASER (HC) not telling a story that is hard to understand at a moral level because the surface artifacts are so thick.

I promise to write about this when I have time, but for now here's a brief explanation of what I saw...even more the second time.

First, I did not know much about the real Eddie Mannix, upon which Josh Brolin's character is based-- I guess loosely. Supposedly, from the little I've read about him, he was an interesting but not a very redeemable person...and for a comedy or a redemptive ending film you need a protagonist likable in a very broad sense. You have to make him both flawed and have him seek the higher human good.  So, my evaluation if of the HAIL, CEASER Mannix, not the real one.

Second, while the HC Mannix is clearly the main character, and my some definitions the protagonist, he plays more of the antagonist character in relationship to his studio charges. Did you ever see any television episodes of the series TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL. In that series, at first glance, one would think the protagonist(s) are the angels. If you have not seen it here's the premise. Some person on Earth has got their life all screwed up and God sends three angels to help him or her get straightened out. The protagonist is the "guest star" with the problem. And in that way the guest star arcs from living a life that is messed up, to getting it fixed...BECAUSE of the angel's interventions in his or her life. The angels do not have control over the protagonist's free will, but they try to find a way to manipulate situations and provide counseling to the  person so they choose to do better and fix their own life.

In that way, Mannix (in HC) is the antagonist, but he's also the main character and the POV character. But the protagonists are  the various studio characters for which he has some responsibility. Now, Mannix does have an arc, and he is clearly better off at the end of the movie than at the beginning, but the deeper arcs are played by the protagonists of the various sub plots.

Third, here are some of the obvious arcs.

Baird Whitlock (Clooney) changes from taking his job for granted to taking it seriously. He plays the vacuous, Hollywood star who lets others do his thinking for him and gets dragged into the foolery of the  writers who really are Communist Sympathizers. His last soliloquy at the foot of the cross is the opposite of his attitude earlier. He's still flawed (and can't remember the more important word of the speech ("faith") but by his forgetting it, the writers of HC get to emphasize it.  Baird moves from skepticism to faith (in multiple areas). And yet, skepticism and faith are the two key values of the moral premise.

Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenrich) also moves through this same arc. He's skeptical of his ability to be in a talkie. But he  get's his talkie legs. And the same time  he's able to translate his "on-screen hero skills" to the real world and rescue Whitlock and bring him back to the studio.

This is also reinforced by the Lockheed recruiter who is stuck on the negative side of the moral premise (skepticism) and refers to Hollywood as make believe and a useless vocation for Mannix to be involved with. The recruiter stays permanently on the skeptical side of the moral premise.

DeeAnna Moran (Scarlette Johansson) arcs from skepticism about marriage (because of her failed marriages and relationships in the past) to marrying the studio attorney who adopts her kid.

The Thacker sisters arc likewise from skepticism about anything Mannix or the studio does to realizing they were wrong about a great many things, and that perhaps gossip isn't always the best for their readers. Thus they move from skepticism about Mannix to faith in him.

Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), on the other hand at his Moment of Grace turns to the dark side, rather than embracing the truth, and hops on a Russian sub and leaves his recruited writers to fend for themselves. You can say that in a Nicomachen way, Gurney arcs from skepticism to treason.

And finally, Mannix moves from skepticism about the difficulty of running production at the studio to realizing it's what he's really good and doing and so his career calling is reinforced. The subplot with the Lockheed recruiter reveals that Mannix is skeptical about his job in several ways. But by the end he has rejected that skepticism in favor of faith in his calling.  Mannix's goal, in the life of every one of his charges is to help them achieve human dignity. His "stars" are very talented...and in that talent they each have a lot of faith to do their work good. But they are not faithful to that dignity when confronted with things off camera. Their lives are a mess, and they are unsure and lost, often times giving The Thacker sisters something to write about. Yes, on the surface you might understand that Mannix is just trying to make a buck for the studio. But that goal is questioned when he so quickly tries to pay off Gurney with a $100,000 ransom for Whitlock. From the very beginning to the end, Mannix's goal with EVERY character Mannix interfaces with is to save their dignity from their own stupid decisions. He is their agent of mercy. He takes on himself their grief, and tries to cover it up by getting them to do what is good.

The most obvious motif that Mannix plays are the movie's bookends....his sessions in the confessional with his priest. The smoking is both a red herring for the audience....and also a metaphor for everything he does. Notice he's skeptical about his ability to please and provide for his wife and family. That is why he's trying to stop  smoking, and get a more stable job that would provide for retirement for his missus.  In the confessional at the end, what the movie is really about is talked about explicitly. He says to his priest, "If there's something that's easy is that wrong?"  He's not sure if the job is what he should be doing, but it seems that protecting the dignity and trying to straighten out his charge's lives ..."it's hard...but it seems right." And the priest says, "God wants us to do what is right."

And with that Mannix, through his secretary tells the Lockheed recruiter "Thanks, but no thanks."

Now, there is a pretty heavy dose of religious overtones in the whole movie that is consistent with a theme in Christianity, especially in this particular year for Catholics. It's the "Year of Mercy." Mannix's job is one of showing mercy to those under the studio's employ...and avoiding scandal. But the Cohen brother's Mannix really cares more for the lives of his charges than he does money. He is also deeply concerned about what he's doing in everything he does. He goes to confession every day...and he takes it seriously. Notice, he's very Skeptical about his ability to be the man he was called to be. Notice also toward the end he goes to the set of HAIL, CEASER and prays at the foot of the cross. We don't hear his prayer. But we know he struggles with every subplot thrown at him. And while he's at the cross (much the way Brad Whitlock is at the end of the movie delivering his soliloquy, he finds his faith...and things work out...and he realizes he's where he should be at the studio. Brad says "faith" (or forgets it) but it's Mannix that finds it.

In the same way that Jesus Christ was skeptical in the garden as to whether or not he should allow himself to be crucified, he comes out of the garden prayer with faith and goes through the very hard time of submitting to his death. And why does Christ give of himself and the security of a life on earth?  To be merciful to those in his charge. So, that, also is what Mannix goes through. He realizes that his very hard life is noble value, and he willing moves forward out of skepticism into faith that he was called to bring mercy (like Christ) to those under his care.

The moral premise:
Skepticism about one's life leads to trial, disillusionment and treason; but
Faith about one's life leads to purpose, vision, and fidelity. 

I don't think there's a character in the movie with at least a three beat subplot that doesn't reinforce that moral premise.

James, thanks for asking.



Mary Rack said...

I enjoyed this article, and very much enjoyed meeting you last evening at the showing. I consider it worthy of sharing with other thoughtful people, so I posted it to one of my neglected blogs as you will see. I will also post it to another as well as tweeting it. I wish you had a Twitter post feature, but I can post without the feature - it just takes more time. I'm interested to see what sort of response I will get to your piece from my Twitter followers.

James Shiels said...

Dr Williams, I have read your book and followed this website and have learned a lot from yourself and agreed with you on practically everything. I have found your tutoring enlightening! Congratulations and respect to yourself! I am also in the process of writing a screenplay. However, if you permit me, this "Hail Caesar" review. I primarily went along to see the movie because of this review. I am sorry to tell you the bad news, I wish i had not seen the movie. I would be very interested in reading about what you thought the moral premise was in this film. The main character was the actor Josh Brolins character who was a top hollywood movie executive of the 1950's. I cannot for the life of me see what serious moral humanistic premise this character could embody, what internal change occurred and why the character was morally different in some way at the end of the movie. The only "struggle" this character seemed to wrestle with was whether he wanted to take a job with engineering/science company Lockheed Martin, or stay working as a top Hollywood producer, working with creative types. To me that seemed to be it, for the whole movie! I have only seen the film once but virtually the last shot confirmed that he had decided to stay as a Hollywood producer as he was back talking to his female assistant like at the beginning of the film, but he did not seem to have changed in any way at all. I have also just found a headline from the Guardian newspaper here in England, the title reads "Hail, Caesar! is Coens' biggest US box-office bomb since Intolerable Cruelty" and "takes just $11.4m on opening - the Coen brothers' lowest ever debut for a film on wide release". I am of the opinion, going along with your book, that the reason why the film has bombed is because it did not have a correctly worked out moral premise that resonated with the audience, well at least this audience member! Best Regards, James Shiels.

Stanley D. Williams said...

James, see my reply at the end of the blog...just added in response to your post March 19, 2016.