Joel and Ethan Coen are making fun of us. And making fun of movie-making too. In their new satire of 1950’s Hollywood, the legendary brothers literally tell the tale of real-life Hollywood fixer, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). We follow this sort-of protagonist as he flits from movie set to movie set, dealing with problems of stardom, image and publicity. I say that they literally tell us this story as, throughout this insight into the dramas of film production, Mannix’s actions are narrated by the indistinguishable Michael Gambon. Applying a thick layer of meta-cinema, the Coens make us extremely aware that we are the audience and that their film is, essentially, a fabrication of a fabrication.
Their film is, essentially, a fabrication of a fabrication
Though this technique has been used by multiple directors in the past as a way of adding to the narrative, I argue that the Coens only succeed in alienating their audience from their film.
Being dubbed as one of their “numbskull” films, the Coens have frequently displayed a nonchalance towards audience reactions to their films and that is proven yet again in Hail, Caesar!. Littered with so many film references even the seasoned film-goer can’t keep track of them all – this film is rendered nothing more than a pastiche of the studio system. The scattered plot line of Mannix is frequently interrupted with long sequences of the other films being shot at this studio, though granted Channing Tatum’s homoerotic Gene Kelly impression was nothing short of hysterical, none of these actually advance the narrative of the film and, instead, just highlight its farcical nature.
Don’t get me wrong, this film can be a delight (as was demonstrated by the elderly man sat behind me at the cinema who perhaps laughed at every single word spoken on screen) but for the majority of the public who perhaps haven’t seen Ben-Hur (parodied by Hail, Caesar!), don’t know who Esther Williams is (parodied by Scarlett Johansson), aren’t aware of the existence of HUAC (parodied by communist agenda plot-line) and Hedda Hopper’s (parodied by Tilda Swinton) influence on it – all the jokes are going to lie flat and, in fact, the film itself will be nothing more than a confused overcrowding of celebrities.
Now, many critics have hailed the shamelessness in which the Coens have critiqued Hollywood and their audience, saying that the satirical humour and melange of celebrity names compensates for the erratic plot. However, I question whether these critics would say the exact same thing if the film was made by anyone other than the Coen brothers? Is it solely out of begrudging respect for the two behemoths of film history that the film has been received well critically? And is it worth alienating an entire audience in order to make an off-hand criticism/celebration of the movie-making system?
I surmise, perhaps not.