The meaning of Hail, Caesar!, the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, has been lost on the movie critics—most of whom, like their fellow journalists, are religiously illiterate. While dismissed as an “entertaining flight of fancy,” it actually delves into the deepest question, the question of God and our place in the universe.
Because it features musical numbers, and the trademark Coen brothers arch humor and slapstick, Hail, Caesar! was labeled a lightweight, second-tier effort. Now out on DVD and streaming video, it didn’t perform very well when it was released in February, making back it’s $22 million budget but not much more.
What Hail, Caesar! asks is: Do we have a divine purpose? The Coen brothers’ answer is yes, but not in the way that most moviegoers might think.
The film, set in early 1950s Hollywood, tells the story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a “fixer” at Capitol Pictures (and an actual person, though as ever, the Coen brothers heavily fictionalize biographical material; a previous movie based on MGM’s legendary general manager was 2006’s Hollywoodland). Eddie takes care of problems that arise and that might cause the studio a publicity headache. He keeps a starlet’s unwanted pregnancy out of the news, eases the panic of a director working with a talentless actor, and tries to retrieve superstar actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who has been drugged and kidnapped by a communist group called “The Future.” He has also been offered a lucrative job with the Lockheed Corporation, which tries to lure him away from Capitol with money and with photographs of “the future”—an atomic test being performed on the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
The film opens with monastic chant and a lingering shot of the crucified Jesus in a Los Angeles church. We then cut to Eddie Mannix, a devout Catholic who is in confession, where he spends too much time (“It’s been 24 hours since my last confession”), even according to the priest.
Eddie is having trouble quitting smoking, and it bothers him that he keeps lying to his wife about it. We then cut to Eddie approaching a Spanish-style house near Sunset Boulevard at 5 a.m. Inside, a young blonde starlet is having her picture taken by a man of questionable integrity. Eddie bursts in, backs the creepy photog into a corner, then reminds the starlet that she has a contract with Capitol and she can’t be filmed or photographed by anyone else. He gives her a quick cover story for when the police arrive and whisks her back to Capitol.
Brolin’s performance is wonderful, suffused with a quiet toughness that is as often tender as it is aggressive. He’s a very smart tough guy whom fate has placed in the movie industry, and the actors are like his wayward children. In one funny seen, a film editor gets her scarf caught in a machine just after Mannix arrives; it’s as if God put him there in the nick of time just to unspool her.
The action all takes place in a frantic 27-hour period, in which the fixer attends to several near-disasters on the lot and around Los Angeles while he prays and considers leaving his job for Lockheed. Three choices confront him: staying where he is at Capitol, “in charge of this dump”; the false utopia of communism (the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock by “The Future”); or the techno-apocalyptic vision of Lockheed Martin.
Hail, Caesar! is not a great film; it’s not even the filmmakers’ best, which is Fargo (1996). Part of the problem is the tone, which, in keeping with the Coen brothers’ other films, can shift between existential despair, profound beauty, and slapstick in a matter of seconds. This can work to riotous and magnificent effect in films like Raising Arizona (1987) or The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), but a film about communism requires another element: the reality of an ideology responsible for the deaths of more than 70 million people.
Granted, this isn’t Steven Spielberg sententiously taking on Schindler’s List (1993). It’s not necessary to pile up images of gulags and show trials, but as the Coens displayed so masterfully in Fargo, it’s possible to have shifting tones—comedic one minute, depicting the real, bloody consequences of sick and bloodthirsty criminals the next—and still maintain the artistry of the piece. Here we get a scene where Brolin literally slaps a communist-bedazzled Clooney back to his senses. It’s a funny and even an inspiring scene, to be sure. But it’s historically insufficient.
All of Mannix’s manic running around takes him in the end to the foot of the Cross—literally. He is on the set of Hail, Caesar!, at the Tinseltown version of Golgotha, where the climactic scene will take place. He has rejected the communists and the warmongers alike, opting to remain the studio fixer. In some purpose-driven way he now comprehends, Mannix belongs in Hollywood. To the lost sheep who rely on him—the innocent young star rescued from possible pornography, or Clooney’s Baird Whitlock, seduced by communist theory—Mannix is an indispensable shepherd. He is, in his way, as tuned in with God as the religious leaders who come to his office to vet films and bicker with him about theology.
The truly holy, according to this movie, are the regular people who trudge along in their jobs and lives every single day, trying their best and simply doing the next right thing. While acknowledging the existence of God, Hail, Caesar! steps outside of the linear concept of God as a drive toward either a heaven on earth or a terrifying End Time.
Communists have rarely been depicted as such idiots, handing over huge sums of money to Moscow and with Mannix having to literally slap sense into Whitlock, who returns from his kidnapping only to start babbling about “dialectical materialism” and “the means of production.” Nearly as unhinged is the techno-corporate representative, the Lockheed Martin man, who comes bearing pictures of mass death. Unnoticed by most of the critics (along with the very theme of Hail, Caesar!) is the terrific performance of Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, a singing cowboy who stars in Westerns. Guileless, plainspoken yet decent, Hobie Doyle is the one who rescues Baird Whitlock from “The Future.”
The message could not be clearer: We all have a divine purpose, even—perhaps especially—those people grinding away outside of the limelight, struggling with temptation but treating others with empathy and, above all, mercy.