Hail, Caesar! (dir. The Coen Brothers)

Posted: February 12, 2016 in Uncategorized

“Hail, Caesar” is a film that deals with religion, Capitalism, and Communism.  It also deals with early 1950s Hollywood and features wonderful recreations of some of the worst types of movies made in that era, including aquatic features, westerns where there’s more singing than shooting, musicals noted more for dancing than their music, pretentious Broadway adaptations, and sword-and -andals epics.  I don’t quite know what the film is saying, but it sure is having a fun time saying it.


The year is 1951, and Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the head of production at Capitol Pictures. His job is to make sure all of the movies the studio is bankrolling are going smoothly.  If they’re not, he’s not above slapping women or men to get them in shape.  The job is tough, and he’s considering a job change with better money and longer hours for weapons manufacturer Lockheed.  He’s also a Catholic who seemingly goes to confession every night.


The biggest movie the studio is bankrolling is “Hail, Caesar”, a sword-and-sandals epic about a Roman soldier who meets Jesus and becomes convinced of his divinity. There’s a very funny scene early on where Mannix calls a rabbi and representatives from three different Christian denominations to the studio to look over the script and make sure it won’t offend anyone. This leads to a long discussion about the trinity that is hilarious in how it points out the absurdity of the whole God is Jesus is God scenario.  The Coen Brothers, who wrote and directed this film, are Jewish, and thus give the Rabbi the best lines about how absurd the whole Jesus thing is.


The lead star of the epic film is Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a good actor who is not very bright and known for drinking and womanizing. One day on set two extras slip him a drug and kidnap him. They bring him to a house in Malibu filled with writers, who are all Communists.  When Whitlock wakes up, the film gives us a good 5 minutes of the writers explaining Marxist dialectics in the wonkiest fashion possible. Clearly the Coens, who also co-wrote “Bridge of Spies” recently, have done their homework on Marxism.  I don’t think the Coens particularly have an opinion on Communism one way or the other, as the Communists in this film mostly exist to be the butt of jokes about how writers are underappreciated in Hollywood, which is a trope we often get in films about moviemaking.  The film seems to make some subtle comparisons between Communism caring about “the little guy” and Jesus caring about Roman slaves and such, which seems to be positive, but the film’s attitude toward Christianity seems to be that of well-meaning foolishness, so that’s possibly what the Coens believe as well.  That doesn’t mean Capitalism gets off easy, though. Naming the studio Capitol Pictures was not an accident, and Mannix’s only morality seems to that of making the movies finished and released, regardless of whether or not unethical happenings go on behind the scenes.  If this film has any message, it may simple be that movies are important, no matter how silly.


After all, Mannix is told bad things about the movie industry from his Lockheed recruiter, who advises him that airplanes and A-bombs are more important.  Oddly enough, the Communists feel movies are important, believing that by putting Communist messages into their scripts they can affect the status quo from the inside.  Despite being typical writers bitching about being underpaid, they give up their money to the Soviet government, setting up that they’re not completely selfish.  In much the same fashion, Mannix gives up the lucrative offer from Lockheed, despite the inference from his wife (Alison Pill) that she’d like him to choose that option, because he finds movies to be more important and fulfilling.  The film seems to be arguing that giving up something for a cause greater than one self is good, but that cause should not be religion or revolution, but MOVIES. That message is itself absurd, but kind of charming.


The film has plenty of tangentially related B stories.  There’s the pregnant out of wedlock actress (Scarlett Johansson) that the studio doesn’t want to have a tarnished name.  There’s the western actor (Alden Ehrenreich) who is conscripted into making a film that is outside of his comfort zone and his talents, much to the dismay of the pretentious director (Ralph Fiennes) that has to work with him.  There’s also Channing Tatum, singing and dancing in homosexual-in-plain-sight-but-still-in-the-celluloid-closet film involving male sailors singing about going out to sea with “no dames” to look forward to.  I haven’t even scratched the surface of bit roles and cameos filled by great actors of all stripes.


Despite Communism kind of being made fun of, I’m inclined to have warm feelings to any film that features such wonky Marxist jargon like “dialectics”, “Praxis”, “means of production”, “base and superstructure”, “theory and anti-theory”, etc.  I’m also, a film lover, inclined to enjoy seeing the Golden Age of Hollywood recreated so wonderfully, in visual style and even in aspect ratio sometimes.  “Hail, Caesar” is not a film meant for mainstream audiences, but it hits me in just the right place.


I’m not always a fan of the Coen Brothers. For every film of theirs I love (“Fargo”, “The Big Lebowski”) there are many I despise (“The Hudsucker Proxy”, “The Ladykillers”).  This is one of the better ones. The Coen Brothers have an issue of putting too much comedy in their drama, but when they focus on just making a comedy they seem more in their element.  The film isn’t exactly uproariously funny, but I smiled a lot while the film went on, and I laughed a decent amount too.


This is not a film for everyone, and many people may find themselves bored with lengthy scenes of films-within-the-film that have little bearing on the plot.  Still, this is a quirky little gem that hit all of the right notes with me. B+


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