In the Loop
By Adam Nayman

Hail, Caesar!
Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, U.S., Universal

“Why the obsession with tail-consuming circularity?” That was Kent Jones, way back in 2000, probing the Coen Brothers on the occasion of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which he saw—quite rightly—as indicative of its makers’ tendencies to contour their works as ouroboroses: “The demonic loop of Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink’s unconscious cannibalization of his own masterpiece . . . Hudsucker’s circles within circles?” Jones’s inventory missed the rotating ceiling fans that whir through Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, and the tumbling tumbleweed rolling behind the opening credits of The Big Lebowski; had he waited a few years, he could have included the spinning hubcap that morphs into a flying saucer near the end of The Man Who Wasn’t There, or the spherical set design of “America’s Funniest Divorce Videos” in Intolerable Cruelty, or the fateful quarter that serves as a synecdoche of No Country for Old Men’s coin-flip worldview, or the whirling vortex that swallows A Serious Man whole in the final shot.

Hail, Caesar!—which, to get this out of the way in advance, is an enjoyable, well-made movie filled with amusingly stylized performances by famous actors—doesn’t answer Jones’s query. But it’s a good opportunity to ponder it, as well as the question of whether the Coens’ latest impeccably traced figure-eight means they’re still dutifully chasing the infinite or they’re merely up their own (smart) asses. Like Inside Llewyn Davis, it’s a film that’s been structured carefully so that its first and (basically) final scenes are exactly alike, and its most potent visual symbol is a sphere, the titular celestial object of Lazy Ol’ Moon, a fictional 1950s Western excerpted in a scene where several of the film’s characters—all of whom work at the fictional Capital Pictures Studios—go to the movies.

Seated in the theater next to the starlet he’s been set up with by the studio’s publicity department, up-and-coming movie cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) watches his character sing a tribute to the eternal, reassuring indifference of the heavens while a burly drunk nearly drowns himself trying to grab the glowing full moon reflected in the water of a wooden still. The yearning after the ephemeral ends with the seeker all wet. The audience’s raucous laughter drowns out Hobie’s sweet-voiced singing, but instead of being disappointed, he joins in.

At the risk of overstating a case that probably gets made more than it strictly has to anyway—especially in a moment where content-farming website editors simply can’t resist the allure of ranked lists—the Coens are probably the most formidably intelligent American filmmakers of their era. Even those who reject their work on the grounds of temperament (snarky), ideology (right-leaning), or repetitiveness (guilty as charged) must concede the sheer, bristling cleverness of their choices as writers and directors—as world-builders who toss off fully realized movie universes while even their worthiest peers sometimes struggle to sustain the tone of a single scene. The high-angled Google Earth views that bookend the (once again completely circular) Burn After Reading sum up their elevated skill-set while also buttressing the charge that too often they place themselves imperiously above the fray. Hey, who died and made them God, anyway?

Watching the dailies for Capital Pictures’ new Biblical spectacular Hail, Caesar! (the title kids Quo Vadis?), in-house fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) encounters a title card reading “Divine Presence to Be Shot”—a double-barreled double-entendre suggestive both of holy imminence and a contract that’s been taken out on the Almighty’s life. This duality of portent is perfect for a movie that takes a time out to define the meaning of “dialectics;” in its most basic outline, Hail, Caesar! is about a plot hatched by blacklisted Communist screenwriters to hold Hollywood hostage in the surrogate form of a movie star, all the better to honor the party line about snatching back the means of production from their masters (while using the ransom money to bankroll Muscovite operations).

The irony of malleable matinee idol Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) getting a lecture on the merits of Das Kapital from men recently exiled by Capital (Pictures) is rather thick, updating (but not refining) the hyper-critical projection of Clifford Odets in Barton Fink, which gets referenced in a recurring shot of waves crashing against the surf outside the kidnappers’ palatial, steel-and-glass beachfront hideout. To put it mildly: Trumbo this ain’t—and really, the appearances here by figures baldly representing John Ford and Hedda Hopper are no more cartoony than the celebrity cameos in Jay Roach’s pandering piece of shit—but while there’s sure to be some surly back-and-forth about the Coens’ umpteenth up-yours to upstanding American liberalism (someone should check to see if Jim Hoberman’s head has exploded yet), the political dimensions of Hail, Caesar! are craftily narrow. That said, the image of a silenced Russian submarine surfacing off the coast of California is as deliriously paranoid as anything in The Manchurian Candidate (a movie that I’d love to see the Coens remake).

The deeper dialectic here is between the maintenance of reassuring “make-believe” represented by the movie industry, in the form of crowd-pleasers like Lazy Ol’ Moon and Capital's new, seamen-filled Anchors Aweigh!-style musical (the production of which gives Channing Tatum a chance to winkingly channel Gene Kelly as the improbably named hoofer Burt Gurney) and the complex contingencies lurking both on and outside its well-manicured grounds. Eddie Mannix’s search for the vanished Baird Whitlock keeps getting interrupted by other tasks, including finding a way to stage-manage a modern Virgin Birth for the glamorous, unmarried, preggers Scarlett Johansson’s Deanna Morann (not surprisingly for these Sturges fanatics, the solution inverts The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) and finessing the tension between Dobie and Ralph Fiennes’s supercilious director Laurence Laurence, whose attempts to get his (studio-imposed) cowpoke leading man to deliver Noel Coward-ly bon mots evokes Lina Lamont’s pitched battles with diction in Singin’ in the Rain).

He’s also having secret meetings with a recruiter from Lockheed, who says that his company’s investment in aeronautical manufacturing represents the “Future”—the same forwarding address provided by the blacklisted writers—and produces a photograph from the Bikini Atoll to back up his claim. The decision facing Brolin’s efficiency expert is thus between two industrial complexes: one devoted to the creation of fake worlds, and one whose endgame is the possible destruction of this one. (The Coens have selected Lockheed carefully, given their legacy pioneering the first ICBMs.) In The Man Who Wasn’t There, Billy Bob Thornton’s Ed Crane tried to invest in a technologically progressive “future”—a dry-cleaning start-up—and paid with his life; this iteration of Ed(die) makes a different choice, consigning himself to the cozily insane stasis of assembly-line movie production rather than working for the architects of the apocalypse.

Eddie’s ultimate decision is framed by the Coens as a by-product of his Catholic fidelity and integrity, both to his professional superior (the unseen Mr. Skank, a doppelganger for the former MGM head Nick Schenk) and his God. But Hail, Caesar! is also filled with images and dialogue that speak to the character’s shameful self-division. He’s filmed several times walking beneath a massive prop of disembodied, classically sculpted legs adorned with a fig leaf; the Cartesian conundrum between his intuition and gut instincts, meanwhile, is distilled into his job title as Capital’s “Head of Physical Production.” As conceptual gags go, this one’s a whopper: we might say the Coens joke, therefore, they are.

If circularity and dialectics have been the guiding motifs for the Coens for a long time—recall that the opening-voice-over of Blood Simple colloquially contrasted American and Soviet systems of belief—their turn towards parables of faith tested is relatively new. It’s telling that the tortured Christianity of Hail, Caesar! feels a bit strained in comparison to the Talmudic agony of A Serious Man, but in both cases, the Coens are working through what seems to be a genuine ambivalence toward the opposed (and thus dialectical) institutional edifices of dogma and doubt. And, for all the claims that the directors always hide within their massive clockwork contraptions—back to Jones, and his description of “defiantly impersonal movies”—their decision to make a film that functions simultaneously (and pretty much equally) as a critique and a celebration of the machinery of moviemaking suggests that they’re leaving it all onscreen: another shimmering bauble for us to grasp at futilely, while somewhere, somebody (probably the Coens) laughs at us for trying.