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This tongue-in-cheek period piece of the Hollywood film scene in the 1950s revels in every inglorious—and frankly, painful—moment of the cinematic process of the supposedly good old days. A fictional ethnography of the parts of Hollywood we often willfully forget, it is faithful to the aching reminder of bad art, made readily available for American consumption.
Another Look at the Best—and Less So—of 2016
Series Description: While the season leading up to the Oscars may often instill a strong wish in cinephiles and normal people alike to re-immerse themselves in the year’s greatest films, very often, many of the truly great films from the year are left out of the spotlight. In this series, up until the big night, I’ll review some of the many renowned independent films of the year that may not necessarily be on the traditional pre-Oscars watchlist.
It largely appears to be the case that the miniscule plotlines within the Coen brothers’ latest picture, Hail, Caesar! (2016), exist solely to illustrate a fictional ethnography of the American cinema scene we are oh-too-eager to abandon, that of the 1950s.
When the Supreme Court, in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., declared unconstitutional the American movie studios that demanded exclusivity in the creation, distribution, and screening rights for their films, those studios were forced to abandon their strategy of vertical integration. This transition away from control of the cinema was complemented by the rapid proliferation of television as a promising medium to woo American viewers away from the cinema and into their living rooms.
So, Hollywood needed a change: To stay relevant, in an era of fading control, studios accelerated production of elaborate westerns, synchronized swimming spectacles, and, of course, fateful epics of ancient Rome.
While it’s easy to convince ourselves of some magical era of advancing cinematic technology monopolizing on the most powerful of stories, the Coen brothers tell us otherwise: Most of the movies back then were downright bad.
Throughout the film, the audience is exposed to life as a producer, director, actor, secretary, and extra in this era, as Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star actor of Capital Pictures, is kidnapped by an extra (Wayne Knight). However, the story whisks us away from this plotline to explore the progression of actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), who must transform his cowboy self into an idiotically posh Englishman with a horrendous accent. DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) also stars as a mermaid, in a deceptively boring, silly, and unrelated aqua film. Amid the madness, we witness onset Communist ideals pass through the Hollywood system without much order at all, and the process is irritating, at best.
And yet, this comedy about a failing film system is utterly conscious of the nonsense it portrays. Whitlock even addresses his producer (Josh Brolin), saying, quite simply, “The studio is nothing more than an instrument of capitalism… [It] makes pictures to serve the system,” and nothing more.
To say the least, the fantasy of art within cinematic trash is just that, and the Coen brothers know it.
This montage of bad art must be an abbreviated glimpse of whatever horrible reality must have permeated southern California in 1951. And, to the average college student, it may not be the golden choice for a Saturday afternoon study break. But, for the choice viewer who may appreciate something so terribly ironic, there may not be a better film for the occasion.
Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes.