Have the Coen Brothers Made Peace With Hollywood?

Hail, Caesar!, their first movie about moviemaking since Barton Fink, is much more upbeat about the creative process.

Universal Pictures

The main character in Hail, Caesar!, Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin), is the only one who’s named for a real-life Hollywood figure: a notorious “fixer” who bullied movie stars into behaving themselves and kept their dirty secrets out of the press. Throughout the film, the heavily fictionalized Mannix runs into crisis after crisis and ponders whether he should quit the movie business all together. Despite his job title, he doesn’t actually fix many problems—most of them end up being resolved with goofy serendipity in one way or another.

DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), an actress pregnant out of wedlock, is told to secretly give her baby to a studio agent (Jonah Hill) so that she can adopt it back from him in what seems a charitable move; instead, the two fall in love. Mannix is pestered by twin gossip columnists (both Tilda Swinton) who have a story of a star’s sexual shenanigans, but it falls apart when the source is revealed to be a communist. Mannix’s wife even asks him to call his son’s baseball coach because he doesn’t want to play shortstop; later he learns his son took the field without a fuss. “Took care of itself,” Mannix murmurs with satisfaction.

But there’s one issue he tackles decisively. Near the end of the film, the leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), having been kidnapped by communists for a day, starts ranting about the evils of capitalism and the studio’s complicity in deceiving the working man. Mannix slaps him and tells him to get back to work: “The picture has worth, and you have worth if you serve the picture, and you’re never gonna forget that again.” It’s an ironic note of optimism from the Coens, but optimism nonetheless—a wry celebration of the movie system they’ve become a part of, and one that stands in fascinating contrast to their earlier, surreal Hollywood satire, Barton Fink.

In 1991, when Barton Fink was released, the Coens were still fairly new to the industry. They broke onto the scene with the indie critical hit Blood Simple in 1984 before making the small-budget Raising Arizona (1987) and the grander Miller’s Crossing (1990). The latter, a prohibition-era gangland yarn, frustrated them so much during the scripting process that it inspired Barton Fink, a film about having writer’s block. As with all their films, the Coens insist Fink isn’t remotely autobiographical. But even so, it paints a nightmarish picture of 1940s Hollywood as a town where the producers and studio heads are ranting egomaniacs, the writers are drunken, broken-down fools, and the L.A. hotel the action is set in literally resembles hell. The only similarity to Hail, Caesar!? They’re both about the same fictional company: Capitol Pictures.

In Barton Fink, the title character (John Turturro) is a playwright looking to bring his work to the masses: a Clifford Odets-type ready to be exploited when he’s put under contract by a major studio. Seeking to connect with the common man as he writes a wrestling movie for Capitol, he stays at a dumpy hotel where the wallpaper is peeling and there’s only one other visible resident, a garrulous man named Charlie Meadows (John Goodman). Meadows eventually turns out to be some sort of personification of the devil himself, a shotgun-wielding lunatic who makes the hallways spontaneously combust with his rage.

It’s my favorite Coen Brothers film, and one of their most divisive—partly because its deeper meanings are so obscure. It’s very clearly a film about creative frustration, but you could argue Hollywood is also a metaphor for something larger, or that Barton Fink is a satire of the studio system itself. While staying at the hotel, Fink is repeatedly attacked by a mosquito—his blood is literally being sucked dry, and his creative efforts on his script are rewarded at the end of the film with a dressing-down by the studio chief, who wanted formula and decides to punish Fink by keeping him under contract but publishing none of his work.

Hail, Caesar! is preoccupied with larger issues too—it’s set in the early ’50s, as the studio system began to falter and lose its stranglehold on big stars. Mannix is a sort of grand mechanic for this sputtering Hollywood machine, walking onto lot after lot to try and solve everything that goes wrong. In the process, he (and the viewers) get to behold one dazzling spectacle after another, from an aquatic musical number fronted by Scarlett Johansson, to a Gene Kelly-esque dance sequence from Channing Tatum, to an athletic Western action sequence from Alden Ehrenreich. While Barton Fink offered only brief, mocking clips of other films about wrestling, Hail, Caesar! serves up a cornucopia of delights.

At the end of Barton Fink, the hero is enslaved to the studio system, and though his fate is uncertain, he seems to have tapped new creative potential. The nebbish Fink bears a distant resemblance to the disgruntled screenwriters who kidnap Whitlock in Hail, Caesar! and lecture him about the means of production and his diminished value within the capitalist machine. The Coens clearly have sympathy and affection for their fictional writerly brethren, but they’re still as pathetic as the woolly-brained Whitlock (the kidnappers try to donate the ransom to the Soviet Union to advance the “cause”). As in many Coen brothers films, there’s a certain fatalism at work here.

The difference is not in the message but in the tone. Films like Barton Fink, or A Serious Man, or Inside Llewyn Davis see their protagonists seeking creative fulfillment or asking questions of higher powers—and receiving no answer. In Hail, Caesar! the answer is given, and it’s as hopeful as one could expect from the Coens: Cinema’s somber, weighty moments matter, but equally crucial are the frivolous, joyful bits of entertainment—watching Channing Tatum tap-dance on a table, or George Clooney ramble overwritten monologues. It bears repeating, one last time: The picture has worth.