Sharing the Back Row talks Hail, Caesar!

I like to see movies by myself and sit in the back row, center seat. Hence the blog’s name. However, it’s fun to talk to others about movies, so Ashley and I are teaming up fairly regularly to talk about what movies we like or don’t like. I’ve been struggling with a name for this, so she suggested “Sharing the Back Row”. Let’s see how it works! This week, we talk Hail, Caesar!, by the Coen Brothers.

Peter: Okay, so, um Hail, Caesar!. I need to start this off by saying that I’m a big fan of what the Coens do. It’s not very often that they disappoint me, but they really did it with this one. But I really am a fan of their work. Honestly.

Ashley: See, I’m the exact opposite. They almost always disappoint me with their work. That’s why I went into Hail, Caesar! with no expectations and was incredibly surprised!

Peter: I guess this means that this won’t be the only time that one of us chooses a Coen Brothers film for a discussion.

Ashley: Considering this is only one of two films I like of theirs, the other being A Serious Man, I think their work would probably be fertile ground for the kind of discussions we have.

Peter: Ah, yes, I remember. Your distaste for Miller’s Crossing is very disappointing. It’s cool, though. I’ll be okay. No, no…don’t look at my face. I’m not crying!

Ashley: I probably should have withheld that I don’t like much of the Coen Brothers output, I’ll lose all my points for liking this one.

Peter: So what is it about Hail, Caesar! that strikes you so differently than the other films from the Coens?

Ashley: Well, this one has Patrick Fischler in it, so that’s a huge improvement! Despite his minimal screentime, it was a joy to see him here. I’ve been a devotee of his since that Winkie’s scene in Mulholland Dr.

But I really love the way they mix genres so playfully and in such a self-aware way. You can tell they’re not taking themselves too seriously, and it makes the whole film great fun. Their gentle nudging of the epic, noir, and studio system really endears the whole film to me.

Peter: All of that would typically work with me, too, but they just really fail to hit the mark this time around. I find very little of the film to be amusing or endearing. That being said, the one time I found myself laughing uncontrollably was when Eddie Mannix talks about Baird Whitlock’s stunt double…Chunk Mulligan. That name absolutely killed me, and is by far the best thing about the film. One name, that’s it. That’s not deep analysis, but I gotta be honest.

Ashley: Well, I agree with you that one name is the best part of the film. We just disagree on which name that is.

The one scene I thought while rewatching that you would appreciate is the scene where Mannix is discussing the depiction of Jesus with the religious leaders. That also missed the mark for you?

Hail, Caesar! (2)

Peter: No, not at all; it’s even in my notes, so thanks for bringing it up. My notes just say, “Talking to religious leaders. Yeah.” That pretty much sums up perfectly the complete insanity that a conversation like that breeds. No disrespect to believers out there, but…well, I’ll just leave it at that.

Ashley: That scene is the perfect example of the mashup that, for me, is accomplished so well through the film. Of course, if that conversation were to actually take place, they would be one-on-one and three separate meetings, but showing them together made the attempt of the studio system to placate everyone and try to find the universal formula in order for their films never to offend. I don’t know, that just hit me. Maybe because it’s still like that today to some degree, and I don’t mean just with religion, but that there are still uncharted waters in cinema that studios are so afraid to tread. I guess that will probably never change.

Peter: The brevity of film making displayed in the scene does work because of what you mention, and I’m  not sure I would have been able to handle another 20 minutes of the movie. So the Coens really saved the day there. But, all kidding aside, it’s a good point about the old studio system trying not to offend anyone. Some of those old movies feel so antiseptic, er, wholesome, that it hurts thinking about the hoops people had to jump through. Thanks a lot, Hays Code. 

I do appreciate the atmosphere of the movie, giving it a very noir feel, especially in the beginning. It would be great to see the Coens return to that kind of film with Brolin as the lead, because he could really pull it off.

Ashley: I completely agree! I long for the version of The Lost Weekend that Billy WIlder wanted to make about one man’s descent into alcoholism without being demanded to give it a happy tidy ending. I love older movies but that perfectly wrapped story hurts the message sometimes.

I mean, he did really pull it off here, for me, anyway, but I really love the atmosphere, too. The colors achieved and the production design is incredible.

Peter: Absolutely. The movie looks gorgeous, and that’s why I think if they did another real throwback to the heyday of film noir, and took it seriously, it would be a huge hit.

One other positive I found in the film was Ralph Fiennes. Although I hated every second that Hobie Doyle/Alden Ehrenreich was on screen, the stuff with he and Fiennes was fantastic. Fiennes’ character almost seemed an extension of M. Gustave, as though he survived the war in The Grand Budapest Hotel, and took to hiding in Hollywood. That part just made me happy.

Ashley: See, I’m not sure them taking it seriously would land, for me. The great part of Hail, Caesar! to me, was the way it was half love letter, half jabbing. You can tell the Coens love this time period, and are obviously fans of cinema given the many references to films, stars, and studios throughout the film, but they don’t paint it with the brush of nostalgia. They highlight the problems with that way of filmmaking but still making it fun. Although, I would love to see this version you suggest.

I’ll have to see The Grand Budapest Hotel, I suppose. I agree that his scene was a standout. I didn’t much care for the Hobie Doyle character, either, I did think it was an effective way to, again, show the insistence of the studio system to achieve the goals they wanted whether it actually worked or not.

Peter: Do you think the movie would have worked just as well without any of the Hobie Doyle plotline?

Ashley: I think we need that character arc in the film, but it could have been played around with, for me, it doesn’t have to stay Hobie Doyle. I do think we need that character that’s being taken out of their element and forced into another genre to remain consistent with the story the Coens were going for.

Peter: I guess I didn’t pay as much attention to that part of it to really feel he or his arc were necessary. Did the Doyle arc call to mind someone specific from old Hollywood for you at all?

Ashley: You know, I tried all throughout the film to place who they may be referring to with each actor, but no one really came to mind for Doyle. I could just be proving how dense I am, though. Did you think of someone?

Peter: No. Okay, so that was deep.

Can we talk about Channing Tatum and the whole musical number for a moment? Not that I really want to, but it must be done. That was truly terrible, right?

Ashley: No more terrible than watching Gene Kelly 😉 I enjoyed that scene, and although I don’t like Channing Tatum, and would have probably enjoyed the scene more were it someone else, I see why he was cast.

Peter: Yeah, I’m not a huge Gene Kelly fan, either. Not that I’ve seen too many of his films, but I’m also not big on musicals period. Channing Tatum is…well, he’s…uh…Channing Tatum. And I know he was supposed to be overly melodramatic in that scene before getting on the submarine, but his cheesiness made it too cheesy. Did I mention I’m not a fan of musicals?

Ashley: I see a new genre to explore through these discussions! I can see how his level of cheesiness can be off-putting. Some of the bits through that scene didn’t land either, so I will grant you that it’s probably the clunkiest bit of the film.

What did you think about that Frances McDormand scarf GAG *Leave time for uproarious laughter to stop* This was one of the few times the Coen blend of absurdist humor worked for me, no doubt adding to my enjoyment of the film over some of their other offerings.

Peter: That part is pretty damn funny. Oh, so is the joke…

Seriously, I did laugh at that moment, too. When is Frances McDormand not good at something, though, right?

Ashley: Yes, you see, because she was gagged, but in comedy a gag…….

You’re right. McDormand is wickedly talented and always brings something unique to her roles.

What I really like about Hail, Caesar! is how much better it is with each viewing, it sounds like you agree? [Edit: Uh, no.] This is said about many of the Coen Brothers films, but this is one of the few experiences I have had with them where I would want to re-watch the film multiple times. There’s so much going on, that it is fun to catch things with each viewing that you missed the time before. For instance, I didn’t catch that the Communist group’s dog was names Engels, and that catching that this time made me cackle. Despite my mixed turn with their films the Coens make multi-layered movies that lend themselves well to re-watches.

For more movie opinions, follow Ashley on Twitter @oOoOoBarracuda, and check out her Letterboxd page, too. You can find me on Twitter @PeterPutzel, Letterboxd, and right here in the Back Row, Center Seat. See you next time!

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