The newest Coen Brothers comedy is a weird mix. The film got hearty laughs in a few places during my screening, but when the credits rolled after a rather abrupt ending, there were widespread gasps of “What?” “Huh?” and “What the fuck was that?”
The trouble is that the Coens are working on two levels that they fail to mesh, thus not quite delivering on both. The film is a screwball sendup of early Hollywood, in places, and obviously some kind of meditation on work, faith and meaning in others. In summation, we get not enough screwball, and the deeper meaning fails to shine through.
This is the story of studio fixer Eddie Mannix, played with charisma and determination by the excellent Josh Brolin. The real guy, based at MGM for decades, was said to be an unsavory tough guy with mob ties. The Coens’, employed by the same Capitol Pictures that once hired Barton Fink, is a devout Catholic, tormented by guilt over the slightest “sin,” and never has to do anything more unsavory than protect a pregnant starlet’s reputation with a clever coverup. This Mannix is being wooed by Lockheed, offered a life-altering contract package and the idea of shedding the silly world of Hollywood pictures for a more serious business. What Mannix thinks of his silly business, and the work he does for it, is where the film seems to want to make a deeper statement.
The film starts with Mannix in the confessional, admitting to lying to his wife about his efforts to quit smoking. It follows his life for the next day (not quite 30 hours, actually) as he has to put out an amazing number of fires. The film’s stand-in for Ethel Merman is pregnant (she’s also a sarcastic broad played winningly by Scarlett Johanssen; two gossip columnists (twins, both played by Tilda Swinton) are going to print dirt on Capitol’s biggest star, and casting problems put a cowboy star into a sophisticated drawing room drama. Oh, and halfwit star George Clooney gets kidnapped and held for ransom by communists.
As Mannix moves nonstop to solve all these crises, the movie pauses to have a panel of religious leaders discuss the nature of Jesus as he who carries our sins (Clooney’s character plays a Roman leader in “Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ”), Mannix wrestles with what his job really means to him and the communists complain that the studio, by controlling the means of production, exploits writers and other craftsmen. In his final trip to confession, Mannix asks whether it’s a sin to trade a job that’s hard, that you love, for a job that’s easy. In all this, I’m reminded of A Serious Man, the Coen’s wonderful look at one man’s suffering, and our place in the universe. I feel like they want us to tease out some serious thought about the nature of Eddie’s Sysyphian labors, and perhaps the approach all of us should take to our lives’ passions. It would seem that Eddie’s faith, his religion, is in the studio and Hollywood itself, and he perhaps is a Christ-like figure taking on all Hollywood’s sins.
(But by covering them up. And “my work is my passion/religion” would not be an effective reply to “workers are being exploited,” which is pointedly raised, but never seriously delved into beyond caricatured commie buzzwords, and never resolved.)
Structurally, the rhythm of the film is off, and it sometimes feels, if not aimless, then working at too many purposes. And of the stars Mannix has to keep track of, the most important storyline other than Clooney’s goes unresolved. Alden Ehrenreich plays a sincere hick of a cowboy actor dropped into a tux and asked to play high society. He’s also forced by heroic circumstances to cut short a first date that feels like a budding romance. The material is very funny, but the question of outcomes is ignored. Considering how deftly the Coen’s resolve Johannsen’s storyline in a single line of dialogue, this small failing seems especially clumsy.
Where the film soars is in its sendups of Hollywood conventions circa 1951. Johannsen stars in a lovely underwater extravaganza, and Ehrenreich does fun bits as a lightweight cowboy star. Clooney appears in some nice sendups of overwrought historical pics. But the centerpiece by far is a sailor-filled dance number starring Channing Tatum that is not merely a sendup of old conventions, but a loving, fantastically staged (and funny) addition to the musical tradition. And in a clever twist, the climax of the communist kidnapping story combines water, the dance acrobatics, hammy overacting, and the historical flicks’ sense of towering importance. It brings the Hollywood flavor to the “real” story, blurring the line between cinematic silliness and the behind-the-scenes world, between modern film and glory days.
That the film is marvelously acted is barely worth mentioning; just look at that cast. The period recreation, cinematography and editing are stellar, as always in a Coen production. It’s just the writing that’s off, with the Coens unable to pull together everything they want to say about old Hollywood and other passions.