Peter Bart: Would Studio Titans Of Old Be Bewildered By Coen Brothers’ Hollywood Frolic?

Universal Pictures

Peter Bart Column BadgeAt a climactic moment in Hail, Caesar! — the droll new comedy (or almost comedy) by Joel and Ethan Coen set in vintage Hollywood — a studio chief (Josh Brolin) shouts at a struggling George Clooney, “Go out there and be a star.”

The problem is that Clooney plays the star both of Hail, Caesar! and of the absurd Biblical epic that takes place within Hail, Caesar! (the movie-within-a-movie), but he has been kidnapped by a band of Communist intellectuals…well, I’m not going to try to explain the alleged plot here. The narratives of Coen brothers movies tend to resemble swivels rather than arcs, so I’ll just report that, in Hail, Caesar!, Clooney, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson and Brolin all cavort like actors who’ve found themselves at summer camp, frantically making fun of themselves and their roles. And running the camp are the idiosyncratic Coens, who clearly have yearned to direct classic Hollywood dance numbers, cowboy-and-Indian shootouts, Esther Williams swimming extravaganzas and other dopey period shtick, which under their guidance look even dopier.

josh brolinDoes all this add up to a rewarding movie? I’ll let the critics decide — most tend to dote on the brothers’ excesses. Personally I found it oddly diverting to re-visit classic Hollywood and its pervasive star system, which even then was becoming unglued. In the Hollywood of Hail, Caesar!, studio boss Eddie Mannix darts around, arbitrarily assigning actors their roles while clumsily covering up their indiscretions. When Clooney is kidnapped, the dilemma is coldly relegated to a scheduling problem. And this being a Coen creation, Clooney, like the rest of the cast, plays it way over-the-top.

From the perspective of 2016, when movie stars have been placed on the endangered species list, these machinations seem all the more surreal. A survey of Hollywood box office hits points up the fact that nearly all were built around brands, not stars – Star Wars, Jurassic World, Avengers, Spectre, Fast & Furious, etc. To be sure, the 2016 Oscar race features a star turn for Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, but it’s the acting ensembles that are drawing the most attention, with voters paying homage to the combined performances in The Big Short, Spotlight and Straight Outta Compton.

Indeed, the road map for superstar survival became even more complicated around the era of Hail, Caesar!, when studio contracts were suddenly terminated and stars had to hustle for roles they once disdained. During the ’50s and ’60s, some stars like Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas became proficient at developing their own projects, while others like William Holden or Spencer Tracy were overwhelmed by the confusion and simply gave up.

channing tatumThe next generation of stars tried to hitch their careers to specific genres (action roles were the most inviting) but still suffered their ups and downs. Sylvester Stallone, today’s comeback kid, hit the jackpot with his Rocky sequels but at a low point in the late ’80s he fired four agents in four years. Arnold Schwarzenegger built an empire around his action films but seemed pathetic struggling to find an audience for the aptly named Last Action Hero. Bruce Willis, too, ran afoul when he abandoned action for Bonfire Of The Vanities and Hudson Hawk. By contrast, no star proved nimbler than Tom Cruise until he, too, ran aground in 2007 when he became chief of United Artists (his Mission: Impossible franchise restored Cruise to megastar status).

Among the present generation of stars, none has displayed as deft a touch as Brad Pitt, who, at 52, has not only picked his roles carefully but, through his production company, has strung together some formidable production credits – Moneyball, The Departed, 12 Years A Slave and, now, The Big Short. The latter from a book he acquired as a producing vehicle, then accorded himself a small role. Pitt also seemed drawn to smart acting choices, like Fight Club, Seven and The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (last year’s By The Sea, a vanity project of his wife, Angelina Jolie, was the lone misstep).

coensSitting through Hail, Caesar!, one senses that the Coens, as stalwart film buffs, are hopelessly intoxicated by Hollywood’s vintage era, yet would never have survived in it. In depicting the studio rulers, they even use the real names of actual executives – Eddie Mannix and Nicholas Schenck — both tough but oddly benign. Mannix, the ultimate Hollywood “fixer,” regularly confesses his sins and, unlike the original Mannix, goes home nightly to his wife and family, who look like they dropped out of Fargo. Would either figure have funded the Coens’ eccentric films? I can practically hear Mannix protesting, “Audiences want to laugh or cry.. they don’t dig droll.”

He may have a point.

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