The opening film of major film festivals can usually be counted on to be two closely connected things. The first is that the film is intended to fulfill a certain, amorphous requirement of image, pleasing a wide variety of industry interests, including that of the red carpet press (stars, please), that of the sponsors and important guests, and that of the movie business, the studios, sales agents and the like. This fulcrum of compromise almost inevitably causes the second thing, which is that more of than not, a festival's opening night film will be utterly bland.
Not so at the Berlin International Film Festival this year—or, at least, not quite. Despite an earlier rumor that the Berlinale had the world premiere of Hail, Caesar!, the new film by Joel and Ethan Coen, Hollywood had other ideas and the film actually opened in the United States last week. But no fear: even with some of the freshness evaporated, the film is still one of the more unorthodox choices to open a major film festival for the simple reason that it is about questioning the value of motion pictures and those who make them.
Self-inquiry isn't exactly what one would think a giant of an international film event would be presenting to tuxedoed guests on the first and very damp night of festivities, but that indeed is what Hail, Caesar! is: an comic moral parable about moviemaking. Set in the early 1950s, it follows a few days in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), head of physical production of Capitol Pictures, a fixer par excellence who keeps the gears of the Hollywood studio system moving despite myriad problems with stars, directors, gossip...and kidnapping. Just when Capitol is putting the finishing touches on a new rendition of the story of Christ, its lead star (George Clooney), who plays a Roman centurion converted by the grandeur of Jesus, is kidnapped...by Communists! Yes, Hollywood has escaped the war and is now transitioning into the era of the Red Scare, television, homosexual threat, blacklists, and, behind it all, the Atomic Age. This last worry, revealed in a brilliantly brief moment of a Lockheed exec showing Mannix a picture of a hydrogen bomb explosion—intending to convince him to leave his old job for a job of the future—carries with it low tone notes of truly ominous stakes, an atmosphere of around-the-corner paranoia that pervades the brightly-colored Hail, Caesar! like an unspoken, dirty secret. As if Mannix might open the wrong door and find himself in a very real 1950s version of David Lynch's Muholland Dr.
The star kidnapping is but one of many fires Mannix has to put out, but it forms the center of the film's moral inquiry. Like the Coens' 2009 movie A Serious Man, Hail, Caesar! is obsessed with figuring out how man finds value and meaning in the world. The answers here are myriad; the film opens in a confession booth (Mannix says his sin is that he sneaked a cigarette, but we suspect something greater, as does Carter Burwell's doom-soaring score), a delirious script consultation between a Rabbi, priest, minister and Orthodox priest antically quibbles over who exactly Christ was, the centurion conversion in the film-within-the-film, also called "Hail, Caesar!," amplifies the religious possibility, while the Communist kidnapping conspiracy, an economic one. And all the while the pictures ensconce it all: are movies the true source of value in this confused and confusing world of vested interests, changing times, political ideologies and moral depravity?
Though lacking in verve, the film has a plucky humor, casual storytelling and is impeccably cast—the Coens and their casting director Ellen Chenoweth are among America's great caricaturists, their room of screenwriter Reds is a stunner and they even found a 100% dead ringer for Golden Era German character actor Herman Bing to play its academic mastermind. Cameos abound as deep cut references to the era's film history, with particular highlights being Ralph Fiennes as an effete Englishman trying to direct an oater star's first turn at drawing room drama, and Frances McDormand in what I can only hope is an Elizaveta Svilova homage as an editor who is almost killed by film when her editing bay vacuums up her scarf and nearly strangles her to death. Brolin's Mannix escapes these directors' characteristic condescension for their scripted beings and achieves an unusual balancing act fighting off the possibility of being the butt of the world's jokes, the man hiding Hollywood's sins so as to turn out yet another gossamer dream.
Yet the film is strangely vague, Mannix's true quest (or self-question) never quite clarified, even if the film delightfully ticks off possible pathways to living with oneself within the Hollywood factory. This odd, ambient feeling of epochal anxiety is best in the wood-paneled beach house Red "study group" George Clooney's endearingly limp star is brought to, a sequence in which the world seems to cave open and reveal a new history emerging. But the film is at its worst in several pastiches of old movies—a bathing beauty sequence, a Channing Tatum-starring all-male dancing sailor routine, a B-Western and an elegant drawing room drama—which feel neither like homage nor emulation, nor parody—instead they're just flat. But this is certainly the most curious part of Hail, Caesar!, which is named after the (also implausible) sword and sandals production that leads to the Roman soldier's conversion: the style of each of these movies-within-the-movies really is no different than that of the Coens film, the same tricks played, the same colors and camerawork. In fact, the greatest conspiracy of all may be that Hail, Caesar! is another Hollywood product trying to teach us something. Or sneaking in its messages. Or does it amount to nothing at all? Or is that the whole joke? At any rate, I'd be very curious to know the conclusions drawn by the bigwig audience at the film's Berlin premiere.