Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Hail, Caesar

It was an okay movie, amusing in parts, but more slow and dramatic than I expected. The movie trailers made Hail, Caesar seem like a broad parody full of jokes, but it was quiet, gentle spoofing. Before I went, I did hear bad word of mouth, but I foolishly trusted the critical reviews that were so positive. It's not terrible; it's just a low-key, understated kind of comedy where you smile and chuckle softly rather than laugh out loud. Sort of like Wes Anderson's style, where you need to have the same quirky tastes as the director(s) to love it. (I've only watched a couple of Coen brothers' films before, Fargo and The Big Lebowski, so I'm not really familiar with their works.) So it wasn't as fun as I hoped, even with the self-important narration.

The heart of the film is the Mannix character played by Josh Brolin; he heads the movie studio and is constantly running around putting out fires, both on and off the set. He makes deals, tries to hide actors' scandals, manages temperamental directors, etc. During the course of the movie, while he's juggling the various crises, including his star getting kidnapped, Mannix is wooed by a man from Lockheed Martin who is offering him a lucrative job. The recruiter seems to recognize that Mannix has great skills in managing production, yet the man is stupid enough to repeatedly insult Mannix's current job as inconsequential, "make believe." If you don't have respect for this man NOW, then why should he join your damn company? Especially when all you can talk about is the top secret H-bomb you just detonated. Idiot.

Mannix knows that taking this Lockheed job would give his family financial security and leave him with more free time; his stressful studio job demands long, irregular hours from him, yet he doesn't want to leave it. He spends a lot of time avoiding a decision, and even praying over what to do, because the Lockheed job just doesn't feel right to him. Late in the movie, when his star actor is spouting a bunch of negative stuff about how the Hollywood studio system is just a capitalist tool to maintain the status quo, Mannix gets really pissed off by this lecture and denigration of his job. Mannix gets up, slaps the actor to his senses, and gives him an impassioned speech about how movies are artistically worthwhile and meaningful for the audience, probably saying all the things he'd wanted to say to the Lockheed recruiter before. It's like a defense from the Coen brothers themselves about why they make movies, even though in today's world, commercial interests keep churning out dumbass blockbuster crap so they can make profits. That's what it felt like to me, and seemed to be the justification for the collection of silly characters and homages to 1950s Hollywood.

Then when I got home, I searched for some more reviews and discussions of the movie, and that made me feel more let down and disappointed. I read an article about the Coen brothers being asked about #OscarsSoWhite and Hollywood's lack of diversity. They groaned and dismissed the whole problem, saying that the Oscars aren't that important, and that the controversy is overblown. (That's crazy, given the prestige of the Oscars and the way they open up opportunity in the entertainment industry to nominees and winners. Shutting out minority voices from the Oscars can shut them out of getting work. It's as important as fighting for equal pay and breaking glass ceilings.)

And isn't that dismissive attitude just like the Lockheed Martin guy saying that moviemaking is dumb, make-believe crap, not like the important serious work of making jetplanes and nuclear bombs? Isn't that just a bit hypocritical, after writing a speech for Mannix talking about how inspirational, powerful, and magical movies are? Also, there's an earlier scene in Hail, Caesar! where Mannix takes the time to consult with a rabbi and various Christian denomination clerics to ask their opinion on the depiction of Jesus in the movie. Mannix takes the trouble to seek outside input on how to make his movie appealing to the potential audience, and that's okay? But people asking filmmakers to stop and think, "Wait--does this cast have to be all-white, or could some of these lead characters be persons of color, or women, or otherwise diverse?" That's too much to fucking ask in 2016?

The Coens really sounded like defensive jerks. They seemed so blind and spoiled, getting offended when the reporter asked why Hail, Caesar had such a white cast. They thought this question was idiotic and beneath them, saying that writing movies with a diversity quota in mind wouldn't be pure art, etc. But that's bullshit. 1950s Hollywood was not all white. In fact there's one side character in the movie named Carlotta, who's dating the singing cowboy. Carlotta's not shown in costume, but she makes reference to dancing with bananas on her head, as if she's a Carmen Miranda-type of star. So the Coens do acknowledge that some diversity in the studios existed back then. It'd be nice if they acknowledged that Asian stars like Anna May Wong paid their dues playing dragon lady stereotypes, only to be passed over for the lead in The Good Earth, for a white actress. Why the fuck wouldn't that, or a parody of the yellow face Charlie Chan movies, have been an interesting thing in Mannix's world, to illustrate the Communists' idea of Hollywood capitalism maintaining the status quo?

It's about having an open mind as a writer, and realizing that maybe your audience would like to see more interesting characters like Carlotta, instead of more bland characters like your leads. White does not mean "universal." No, you don't have to write with a racial or gender quota in mind when you create the story, but it's a matter of asking, what if this person had a different trait than I first imagined? What if I fight my unconscious bias? It's like, in season 4 of Arrested Development, George Michael's college friends had whitebread names of Becky and Ray, but they were cast with actors of color. No reason. Just because, and the narrator made no comment on it. No these parts weren't big, but there were more significant characters with speaking roles like China Garden, P-Hound, Herbert Love and his family, Perfecto Telles, etc. They realized that the world is much bigger and more diverse than their lead characters, and they tried to reflect part of that world in the show.

If the Coens are such blind hypocrites, it gives me less motivation to check out any of their other movies. They have such huge reputations, so maybe they're buying too much into their own hype.

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