More than just the Coens’ funniest movie in over a decade, Hail, Caesar! is stealthily their most spiritual.
The picture has worth, and you have worth if you serve the picture.
It’s not really a spoiler to say that Hail, Caesar!, the new screwball, Old Hollywood romp from the versatile Brothers Coen, opens with a crucifix and ends with a beatific sky. Joel & Ethan’s films have always functioned on multiple levels — stylistically, thematically, allegorically — but they have rarely done it as elegantly as they have here, infusing what could just be a goofy lark (and palate cleanser after a run of more “serious” films) with layers of meaning that will reward repeat viewing. Caesar is a love letter to the glory of Hollywood’s Golden Age, back when it lived up to its nickname “The Dream Factory”; it’s a sly undercutting of the self-righteousness that plagues both sides of the political aisle; most interestingly, it’s the next passage in the Coens’ ongoing conversation about faith, doubt, and finding your place in the world.
Josh Brolin, in his third outing with the Coens, plays Eddie Mannix, a “fixer” for Capitol Pictures — meaning, basically, that he’s the guy who gets things done. He wrangles the stars, manages the press, and keeps all of the studio’s plates spinning. Currently, he’s overseeing production of their tentpole epic, the eponymous “Hail, Caesar!”, which has more in common with Ben-Hur than its ancient Roman setting. Its subtitle, after all, is “A Tale of the Christ.” Its star, Baird Whitlock (a wonderfully game George Clooney, as always) evokes the manful Charlton Heston in his line deliveries. The script even includes a chariot race, which a rabbi in Mannix’s hastily-assembled group of script advisors knocks for realism.
That early scene, as an exasperated Mannix watches the group — two rabbis, a priest, and a pastor — devolve into sniping about the nature of the Godhead, only to shrug when asked if anyone would actually be offended by the film, is a clue to the Coens’ real motivations in telling this story. Yes, there are conspiracies and kidnapping (what Coen film doesn’t have those things, you might ask), and joyful recreations of a litany of 1950s film genres, but Hail, Caesar is above all a character study. Mannix is the closest the Coens have come to writing an actual Christ figure (not like the laughably blonde-haired presence seen on screen, only from the back); his role is to take on the sins of the other studio employees, so they can live fulfilling lives and give joy to the world.
The central thrust of the story is the drugging/kidnapping of Whitlock, and Mannix’s efforts to get him back before the film falls behind, or it creates a field day for the rumor-hungry press (twice-embodied by Tilda Swinton, as twin columnists for rival rags). The typed ransom note names this shadowy organization “The Future,” but the truth is far less threatening in reality than the abstract, and is resolved without any real tension. That’s not really to its detriment — it’s just not the point of the story. While Hail, Caesar! cocks an arched eyebrow at the entertainment industry, it has even less patience for those who wish to corrupt it for political gain — especially (and amusingly, considering the Coens) screenwriters who claim they’re “sticking up for the little guy.” In our Brian Schroeder’s excellent essay on the directors, the theme of “authenticity” kept reappearing, particularly in one’s beliefs, and echoes of everything from Barton Fink to A Serious Man can be felt here.
Lest I make the film sound too heavy, fear not — Hail, Caesar is every bit as entertaining as you’ve been led to believe. I’d go as far as to say it’s the Coens’ best comedy since 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?, another film with punctuation in the title and George Clooney playing a doofus. The highlights are when the proscenium arch falls away and we’re drawn into these short scenes from Capitol’s (no coincidence, that name) upcoming film slate: “No Dames,” a South Pacific-esque jaunty musical where Channing Tatum tap dances and sings surprisingly well; an aquatic ballet where Scarlett Johansson’s brassy actress hides a scandalous secret under her “fishass” costume; “Merrily We Dance,” a parlor drama directed by the unflappable Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), and more, all staged with sophistication and sincerity.
It’s this last film that provides Caesar‘s best subplot: the studio’s desire to reincarnate drawling cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) as a Mid-Atlantic dramatic leading man. He’s a good kid, as Mannix can attest, charming and polite and a whiz with a lasso, but falls hysterically short at the actual craft of acting. (As we see in one coaching session with Laurentz on delivering a single line of dialogue, which goes on for ages and I could have watched more.) Yet Hobie’s endearing spirit and dependability make him the film’s (Caesar’s, not “Merrily We Dance’s”) secret weapon, and Ehrenreich its breakout star.
More terrific actors just pop in for a scene or two, like Frances McDormand as a quick-fingered editor with a scarf problem, or Jonah Hill as a deadpan “legal human” whose job is to sign documents and make studio scandals go away. In the film’s brisk 106 minutes we get a whirlwind tour of every stage of the production process, that Golden Age gloss lovingly recreated by the Coens’ crack design/costume team and photographed by longtime collaborator Roger Deakins. Watching the group dance number from “No Dames” or the genuinely stirring emotional climax of “Hail, Caesar,” we’re reminded through the patina of nostalgia that even bad people are capable of creating great art — or, at least, family-friendly entertainment.
Mannix himself is a decent man in this so-called den of corruption and sin; his frequent (too-frequent, says his priest) confessions just focus on how he lies to his wife about smoking. Amongst the cavernous studios peppering the California desert, Mannix is also being tempted: a cushy job from Lockheed Martin is on the table, and even if it has something to do with H-bombs it’s surely easier than what he’s doing now. And day after day, as Mannix flits from meeting to meeting and from set to set, putting out different kinds of fires and almost never getting home in time for dinner, he wonders — rosary in hand — how much longer he can keep doing it. But when he finds himself at the foot of the cross (well, on the studio’s Calvary set), he receives his answer. Sure, it’s all make-believe, but movies have the ability to bring inspiration to millions, provide a vehicle for our hopes and our imaginations, and are worth the effort they require to do right and do well. That’s a gospel the Coens know how to spread.