The Coen Brothers ‘ filmography is a mix of goofy comedies (Raising Arizona, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers) comedies exploring serious themes (Miller’s Crossing, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Fargo) and the occasional genre drama inflected with humor (Blood Simple, No Country For Old Men). Hail, Caesar! Fits most comfortably into the first group, but the themes it explores are serious, even if the Coens can’t keep a straight face.
Hail Caesar tackles show-business, religion, identity and the intersection of the three with the story of studio producer, and “fixer”, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, playing a heavily fictionalized version of a true-life figure). Mannix is juggling several high-stakes balls in the form of a kidnapped star (George Clooney) a pregnant, unmarried, starlet (Scarlet Johansson), and a mismatched actor and director (Alden Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes, respectively) all while fielding a lucrative job offer from Lockheed that would take him away from the movie biz. The film opens with Mannix in confession, informing the priest of his dishonesty to his wife regarding his continued smoking. The only sin that Mannix can think to confess is dishonesty, which makes sense as Eddie’s job is to obscure the truth; making sure that the Hollywood press, in the form twin reporters Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton, in a dual role), do not expose the more lurid details of his studio’s stars. In essence, Mannix makes his living disguising ugly truths with beautiful lies: the very nature of the movies.
The film is equally cynical about, and celebratory of the movies. While George Clooney’s Kirk Douglas-esque movie star, Baird Whitlock, may be a bloviating dumbass, he is still able to entrance a film crew with a powerful speech. And even if a tap routine performed by song-and-dance man Burt Gurney (played by song-and-dance man Channing Tatum) is meant to make us chuckle at its silly outdated-ness, it’s still a joy to watch, with all sincerity, for its skillful execution. The same can be said of Ehrenreich’s singing cowboy, Hobie Doyle, who is ill-fit to the drawing room drama in which he is cast, but is an artist with a horse and lasso. In multiple scenes, the Coen Brothers allow us to get sucked in to the false reality of the films within the film, only to pull the rug away with a director yelling “cut” before we’re ready for the illusion to end, thus illuminating our relationship with movies. We know they are false realities but we agree to believe the lie because we love it.
At the center of the film is Mannix’s struggle to define his own identity, and his ability to define the identities of others. He is the master of his corner of the universe. But other industries, specifically the Cold War – era defense industry, are calling with promises of fat checks and an early, comfortable retirement. Eddie finds himself wondering if life in pictures is worth the aggravation and late hours. He doesn’t know if he likes himself in show business, but he doesn’t know who he would be out of it.
You could take all of this quite seriously if you thought for a moment that the Coen Brothers were too. They are not; Hail, Caesar! is presented from start to finish with a big theatrical wink. Every role is played to draw attention to the fact that we are watching an actor playing a role, and often an actor playing the role of an actor playing a role, and often the sets have an obvious falseness, intended to call attention to their artifice. Hail, Caesar! is, perhaps, as close as the Coen Brothers can get to a love-song to the movies, which is to say that even though they are expressing their love, they are also saying that love is dumb. Love is dumb, and movies are dumb, and we are dumb for loving them, and it’s beautiful. A-
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen /Writer: Joel and Ethan Coen/ Starring: Josh Brolin, Alden Ehrenreich, George Clooney, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson/ Rated PG:13/ 100 min.