Hail, Caesar! is the much-anticipated addition to the canon of the famed Coen brothers’ films—a list which includes both dramas like True Grit and quirky cult classics like O Brother, Where Art Thou? Their latest movie certainly bears that clever Coen touch: set in the Golden Days of Hollywood, it recounts a day in the life of studio producer/fixer Eddie Mannix (winningly gruff and honest Josh Brolin). The latest project on Eddie’s plate is the production of swords-and-sandals epic Hail, Caesar! (a very thinly disguised reference to Ben-Hur), starring big-name star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Whitlock is kidnapped by a group of resentful communist screenwriters, and Eddie must clean up the chaos while keeping his motley Hollywood crew in check.
Peppered throughout this brilliantly-directed story are colorful and delightful scenes which serve no other purpose than as unabashed love-letters to Golden Era Hollywood: tributes to Esther Williams’ elaborate swim ballets, or to Gene Kelly’s tap-dancing sailors, and even a sly nod to the elocution lessons in Singing in the Rain. All these scenes are brought vividly to life by a stellar cast that seems almost under-utilized (Ralph Fiennes and Scarlett Johansson, for instance, have a mere two scenes each).
No-nonsense businessman Eddie Mannix is something of an enigma, moving seamlessly through the muddles of this golden world. Although he may daily invent fictions for the gossip columnists to cover up the missteps of Hollywood’s darlings, he takes even little lies quite seriously. Regularly cleaning up the messes of other people’s sins, he is acutely aware of his own, without a hint of hypocrisy, ambition, or greed. He goes to confession daily and prays daily in secret, in striking contrast to his hectic Hollywood career. (Every Catholic will wince in empathy when Eddie, shortly after leaving the confessional, slips again into a minor sin in a moment of weakness—breaking a promise to his wife to stop smoking; and every Catholic will likewise recognize the heroic moment when, mere hours later, he manfully takes up the cross again and refuses a proffered cigarette.)
There is nothing duplicitous about Eddie when he brings together a Catholic priest, a Rabbi, an orthodox priest, and a Protestant minister to review the Hail, Caesar! script for anything theologically offensive. If it sounds like a joke, it is: the theological quarreling that ensues is deliberately funny (despite a refreshingly plain moment when the priest is given full rein to explain the nature of Christ). But Eddie is completely sincere, speaking to them about telling “a tale of the Christ” better than it has been told before. When they point out that the Bible wasn’t so bad of a telling, Eddie is quick to clarify: for the masses, he says, film is a source of “information, uplift, and, yes, entertainment,” and so a good film about Christ will become a real “reference point, embodiment, or realization” of the Gospel.
He could almost say, an “incarnation.” Good art, making manifest the invisible, like a sacrament, is the point in some way of Eddie’s crazy Hollywood world. As he watches an early cut of Hail, Caesar!, a screen card fills in an unfinished scene with the humorously matter-of-fact statement: “Divine Presence to be shot.” Finding that hidden, implicit Divine Presence seems to be part and parcel of Eddie Mannix’s daily life.
It is certainly a daunting task in a world where appearances are so drastically different from reality. Nearly all those in Eddie’s care are pictures of human faultiness. Revered actor Baird Whitlock is shallow and empty-headed, easily swayed by his kidnappers’ communist propaganda. “Innocent” starlet Deeana Moran (Scarlett Johansson, with an amusingly brittle New York accent), is expecting a child out of wedlock and must find a husband before the papers get wind of her pregnancy. High-profile director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) has an indecent past which causes Eddie and others long-lasting PR grief. Even genuinely humble Texan actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich channeling crooning cowboy Roy Rogers) has his share of imperfections—most obviously, that he really can’t act.
And yet all these imperfect people are capable—if Eddie Mannix holds them in line—of coming together to create great cinema. If they play their part (literally), they can be channels or tools in the creation of something greater than themselves—a task the grumpy communist screenwriters, by contrast, prove utterly unwilling to accept; they would rather be the ones in control, manipulating history. As Eddie (in a fit of anger he later scrupulously brings to the confessional) tells one actor whose self-absorption has caused trouble for everyone else in a film production: “This picture has worth! And you have worth as long as you serve this picture!” The collaboration for a higher end brings meaning into their otherwise frivolous lives.
Or, as St. Paul might put it, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Cor 4:7).
That is the real truth Eddie Mannix sees—not the dirty “truth” that columnist sisters Thessaly and Thora Thacker (Tilda Swinton, in both roles) try to dig up for the sake of a headline, but a Christian truth, a “new truth”—as Baird Whitlock’s character says in rehearsal in the Ben-Hur-esque crucifixion scene. The truth that each imperfect human is, as the priest points out earlier, a child of God; and that with Eddie’s “fixing” they can create something better than any of them individually—whether communist scriptwriter, troublesome actor, or faceless extra. One brief scene captures this idea: Christ is played in the pseudo-Ben-Hur by a nervous nobody from Ohio named Todd, and in the prep for his final scene the audience is invited to see not just Christ in Todd, but Todd in Christ—a clearly imperfect man doing his best to imitate Christ, the perfect God-man, as every Christian is called to do.
Yet others in the film refer to the world of Hollywood as simply “make believe,” such as the Lockheed Martin rep who offers Eddie a lucrative job away from Hollywood chaos. Even the narrator calls movies the stuff of “dreams,” and Eddie himself comments to the gossip columnists, “People don’t want the facts, they want to believe.” Hollywood, and art by extension, is not the “real world” as the disgruntled communists buried in Marxist theories or the profit-focused capitalist Lockheed rep would have it. Both the communists and the Lockheed rep disparagingly contrast Hollywood with the “future”—the world of economics or of hydrogen bombs.
But in a subtle moment, two of the Soviet-sympathizing screenwriters working on a puzzle together reach the end only to find that the last piece mysteriously doesn’t fit. Their simplified ideological worldview is incomplete. G.K. Chesterton once described Christianity as the only key which fit the lock of the mystery of human life; perhaps Eddie Mannix remains unmoved by the overtures of communism or capitalism because he is the only person in the film who has found that key. Even though he admits his job is “harder” than other options, he feels drawn to it. He is not concerned with “the future,” but with an incarnational reality of the here and now—the present moment which is our closest experience of eternity. Frequent shots of Eddie’s watch and other clocks, as well as references to appointment times and hours of the night and day, continually root Eddie’s story in the now. In this unique job of working out human problems in the eternal present moment—hard though it may be—Eddie finds his vocation and his cross in the world of Hollywood.
How can Hail, Caesar! deal with the underbelly of Hollywood without growing bitter? The film remains a witty and endearing romp through the Golden Age of Hollywood, and never a heavy-hearted picture of what’s behind the cracks in Hollywood facades (like Sunset Boulevard, for instance). This very levity empowers the picture to laugh at rampant human imperfection without disrespecting the ideals of human art and labor. As G.K. Chesterton said, “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.” Hail, Caesar! never bothers taking itself too seriously, and in that the Coen brothers have proven that they have something of an angelic touch.
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