Hail Caesar! From Commies to Christ, and Back Again

In 1953 a movie came out entitled The Robe which was a sand and sandals epic about a Roman centurion who had been one of the ones who crucified Jesus, and won his robe on the toss of the dice, and was thereafter haunted by the man on the cross. Unlike, Hail Caesar (which draws upon some of the premise of that earlier movie, but is a satire), the Robe, starring no less an actor than Richard Burton, was a serious movie. What you have in Hail Caesar also deals with the theme of Christianity not only in the film being shot, but in the major figure in the movie Eddie Mannix (a very convincing Josh Brolin) who is the ‘fixer’ for Capitol Pictures and is a devout Catholic, constantly going to confession due to the sometimes tawdry, sometimes superficial, sometimes unethical nature of what he is helping to produce. Plus, he can’t stop smoking.

The 50s were a squirrely time for movie makers, what with the rise of McCarthyism, and committees on Capitol Hill finding Commies under every rock, especially in decadent Hollywood. There were a lot of war movies made, and also a lot of religiously themed movies as well (see. e.g. The Ten Commandments,Ben Hur, The Robe) as well. It was an unsettled time when the nation had the jitters after the dropping of the bomb on Japan, and even the media was apt to be accused of having Communist leanings (see the George Clooney film ‘Goodnight and Good Luck’).

The Coen brothers, never ones to shy away from peeling up the doormat and showing the creepy things crawling underneath the veneer of American culture, turn their gaze on their own industry to reveal what a cynical money-making and hypocritical racket it can be. War and Jesus, Westerns and musicals, all were used to make money in the 50s by the ‘heathen’, and the Coens set out to show a bit of behind the scenes drama as to how it was done and what was really the engine driving the Hollywood train. And of course if you are going to depict Hollywood, then you need A list actors and actresses to do the job. Hence the following descriptive summary on the website of this one hour 45 minute movie….

“Four-time Oscar-winning filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men, True Grit, Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, The Big Lebowski) write and direct Hail, Caesar!, an all-star comedy set during the latter years of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Channing Tatum, Hail, Caesar! follows a single day in the life of a studio fixer who is presented with plenty of problems to fix.”

The Coen Brother are capable of traversing the whole arc of the spectrum from the sublime to the ridiculous, and are clearly better at the latter, and indeed there are some truly funny scenes in this brief movie, which is neither a blockbuster nor a mere bagatelle, but somewhere in between. This is not their best work, but it is a diverting little film which is better than some of their films.

Our Lexington homeboy Clooney plays Baird Whitlock, the Roman soldier star of the picture Hail Caesar itself. And like in O Brother Where Art Thou, he plays somebody ‘about as dumb as a bag of hammers’ but nonetheless handsome and capable of decent acting. Ralph Fiennes is excellent as the director of a different picture, but basically he has only one scene, and Scarlet Johansson hardly gets enough air time either, though she is effective in the scenes she has. Jonah Hill barely gets to flex his talent, but Channing Tatum is charming in the Navy dance number. Tilda Swinton is cast perfectly as the Hollywood gossip columnist who plays both of two sisters who do that job who have the hilarious names of Thora and Thessaly.

Perhaps the most revealing and hilarious scene in the whole film is when Mannix sits down with a rabbi, an Orthodox and a Catholic priest, and a Protestant minister who have read the script for Hail Caesar and are asked whether they find anything offensive in the script. An argument about whether Jesus was God or not breaks out……

If you are looking for a diversion in the cold days of February which does not involve bad language, killing, sex scenes, but does involve some humor, then this is the film for you. It’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma of a plot (who kidnapped Baird Whitlock?) but the wrapping is all typical Coen Brothers with tongue firmly planted in cheek. You could do worse than see this film… and in the dead zone season for movies, you really can’t do a lot better.

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