I want to keep this comment both short and free of spoilers so bear with me if it seems insufficient, or insufficiently detailed.
In Terence Malick’s new release, Knight of Cups (out last year in Berlin, but still awaiting US release) Antonio Banderas’s character cautions, “Treat this world as it deserves: There are no principles, just circumstances.”
The quip could also be a tagline for the Coens’ newest release, Hail, Caesar!, with the necessary addendum (applicable to both films) that those ‘mere’ circumstances are always equal parts beautiful, aggravating, confusing, challenging, and pleasurable. The emotional matrices born up and out by everyday life in Hail, Caesar! are akin to its expected sexual innuendos; they are not beside the point, they are the point.
To me the joy of this film comes from what I can only describe as its endless deferral of principle, which is not the same thing as saying the film has no principles or destroys all principles. The cleverness and adroitness of the Coens lies here in their lifting up one principle after another, like odd but lovely relics from the past, and fattening them up with attention until the principles veritably bounce with substance. Then the Coens hollow them out one by one, and toss each to the side before turning, without drama or even cynicism, to the next one.
For me the best part…no, that’s unfair because the Frankfurt School is well represented. I’m going to end this post with a scene between a Hollywood man and his priest. His job of wallowing in the absurdity of aggravating pleasure “feels right,” he says, but shouldn’t he take the “principled” option for his life that has been offered to him? “God wants us to do what’s right,” the priest responds after a pause, and in that tired adage he gives principled sanction to the evisceration of principle.
Only the hollow casing of principle is left, a flimsy cliché next to the meaty emotional intensities of circumstance.