Review: Hail, Caesar! (dir. Joel & Ethan Coen, 2016)

Review: Hail, Caesar! (dir. Joel & Ethan Coen, 2016) February 6, 2016

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Hail, Caesar! is the name of the new Coen brothers movie, a comedy of sorts set in and around a Hollywood studio in the early 1950s. It is also the name of a movie within the movie — though the full title of that other film is actually Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ. And there’s a lot we could start unpacking just with that title.

The first and most obvious thing we might notice is that “A Tale of the Christ” was also the subtitle of Ben-Hur, one of the classic Bible films that Hail, Caesar! parodies. The Coen brothers’ movie is set in 1951 — that’s the copyright date we see on one of the other movies within the movie at its premiere — and that is the year when Quo Vadis, the first of the classic New Testament epics, came out. But the Hail, Caesar! within the Coen brothers’ movie is more like a pastiche of 1953’s The Robe and 1959’s Ben-Hur: the main protagonist, a Roman tribune played by the George Clooney character, is present for the crucifixion of Jesus just like the Richard Burton character in the former film, while in an earlier scene he encounters Jesus after dragging some thirsty slaves to a well, just like one of the Roman soldiers in the latter film. (As in Ben-Hur, so here: the face of Jesus is kept off-screen — we see only the back of his head — so the power of the scene hinges on the facial expressions of the Roman who encounters Jesus. Suffice it to say that whoever played the Roman in Ben-Hur does a masterful job, while the Clooney character’s performance is laughably bad.)

The second thing we might notice about the title is that, just as the movie within the movie is in some sense about Jesus, the Coen brothers’ movie revolves around a Christ figure of sorts, namely Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a “fixer” at Capitol Pictures (the same fictitious studio that we saw in the Coens’ earlier Barton Fink) who produces the studio’s movies and does everything he can to make sure that the potentially scandalous behaviour of his studio’s movie stars does not end up in the gossip columns. The idea that Mannix might be some sort of Christ figure isn’t as much of a reach as you might think: apart from the fact that the movie begins with a shot of a darkly-lit crucifix, and apart from the character’s personal religiosity — he goes to confession so frequently that even his priest tells him it’s too much — Mannix genuinely believes in the power of film to uplift and inspire people, and you could say that he takes the sins of his actors upon himself, protecting and forgiving them while bearing some sort of guilt for his complicity in the system that enables them. (That being said, it is interesting to see how Mannix confesses the littlest of personal sins to his priest — lying to his wife about not smoking, for example — while never mentioning professional sins like how he lies to the police and bribes them to protect his actors’ reputation.) Oh, and Brolin himself has talked about the “Christ-like” nature of his character in promotional interviews, so there’s that, too.

But there is a third thing implicit in the title: the juxtaposition — or dialectic, if you will — between Caesar and Christ. Caesar, historically, represented brutal, imperial, political, economic power, while Christ, born to the poorest of poor families in a backwater fringe of the empire and ultimately executed in the most horrible of ways by that empire for spreading a message of love and forgiveness, represented the opposite of all the things that Caesar stood for. And one of the great ironies of the Bible-epic genre, of course — certainly in the studio system’s heyday — is that these films were usually produced by very rich and politically-connected companies that aimed, on some level, to profit from a story that tells us wealth and power aren’t everything. The temptation to turn Christ into a new Caesar, a new means of attaining earthly power, has been with us forever, and there is something of that quest for cultural clout in every movie that aims to turn the story of Jesus into a box-office hit.

The gap between what Bible movies say and how they are made is expressed most vividly in what might be my favorite scene in the Coen brothers’ film (mild spoiler warning, since it comes very late in the film): a crew member goes to the Golgotha set and asks the actors on the crosses (whose faces we never see) whether they are “principals” or “extras”, because it will affect what kind of breakfast they get on set. The actor playing Jesus — who sounds very uncomfortable — doesn’t know how to respond at first, and finally, hopefully, says, “Principal?” There’s irony in the way the producers behind “a tale of the Christ” would leave the actor who plays Christ hanging like that (literally as well as figuratively!), but there’s also irony in the way the actor — unlike Jesus, who made himself nothing — seeks to elevate his status by claiming, however uncertainly, that he should be one of the film’s “principals”. (The way the actors’ status is linked to their food also brings to mind Pier Paolo Pasolini’s short film La Ricotta, in which an extra who plays the “good” thief in a movie about the crucifixion dies from indigestion because of his mistreatment on the set.)

One of the other central themes that runs throughout this film is the “split” between masters and servants: between the studio chiefs and the people who work for them, between the big-time writers and movie stars on the one hand and the mere extras on the other, between the Soviet masters and their Communist stooges in America, between the ancient Romans and their slaves, and so on. The word “split” first comes up when Mannix calls some religious leaders together — a Catholic priest, an Orthodox patriarch (impressive, since there are no patriarchs in North America!), a Protestant minister and a Jewish rabbi — to consult on the movie within the movie. The hilarious theological argument that ensues leaves Mannix confused, especially when the Catholic priest makes a distinction between “God” and “Son of God”. Is God “split,” Mannix asks? “Yes,” replies the priest, “and no.” The word comes up again when movie star Baird Whitlock (Clooney) is kidnapped by some Communist screenwriters who say that mankind is “split” between the people who do the work — like them — and the studio chiefs who profit from their work. But here, too, a pipe-smoking philosopher suggests that there may be some sort of unity behind the division. And all of these themes are ultimately touched upon in the final speech that Whitlock’s character is called upon to give at the foot of the cross in the movie within the movie. (Though note that, even here, the point is made that it must be Whitlock’s character — a high-ranking Roman, played by a top movie star — who gives the inspiring speech, and not just “some Roman schmoe”.)

There’s an apocalyptic undercurrent throughout the film. If my ears weren’t deceiving me, I got the distinct feeling that there was a rising ominous sound at the end of a few scenes, just before they cut to the next scenes. In one scene, a random accident almost kills a filmmaker and burns a hole through the movie she’s working on. There’s a passing reference to the fact that television is beginning to eat into the movie business, threatening the studio’s future. And while Mannix deals with all of the movie-studio craziness, he also has to figure out what to do with a job offer from Lockheed Martin: the hours would be better and he would spend more time with his family, but the company makes hydrogen bombs (“Armageddon!” the religiously-minded Mannix exclaims when he sees a photo of the first thermonuclear test), which casts a darker light on all his efforts to keep people entertained with light, “frivolous” movies.

Of course, there’s a lot more to the film than all these heavy themes. Hail, Caesar! also works as a frothy tribute to the Hollywood films of yesteryear, from singing cowboys to posh romances and sailor musicals with not-so-subtle gay subtexts. (Channing Tatum, who has already proved himself adept at comedy, drama and dancing, here adds singing to his résumé.) While the film is set in the early 1950s, it tips its hat to other decades, too: a friend of mine pointed out that a scene in which cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) entertains his date by twirling a piece of spaghetti like a lasso may be a nod to the “spaghetti westerns” of the 1960s, and there’s a subplot in which the pregnant but unmarried Esther Williams-like water-ballet star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is encouraged to have her child in secret and then “adopt” it, just as Loretta Young did in the 1930s. (Notably, no one ever suggests that the promiscuous Moran get an abortion, as other female movie stars of that era often did at the studios’ behest. Young, for her part, was a devout Catholic who claimed years later that she had been date-raped by Clark Gable.)

Fans of Bible films will also get a kick out of some of the homages, coincidences, and opportunities to nitpick here. Curiously, the first bit of footage that we see from the movie within the movie is a clip of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus — an incident that, as far as I can tell, has never been depicted in a movie made by a major Hollywood studio before. (Paul himself has appeared in big-studio films like Quo Vadis and The Last Temptation of Christ, but the Damascus-road incident has not, to my knowledge.) Some of the movies within the movie are shown in a widescreen format, even though widescreen films didn’t really take off until The Robe came out two years later. A narrator tells us that the fictitous Hail, Caesar! takes place “twelve years into the rule of Tiberius,” which is actually off by at least three years. It is amusing, and probably purely coincidental, that Baird Whitlock is playing a Roman tribune, just as Joseph Fiennes will later this month in Risen. (Fiennes’ brother Ralph — who voiced the part of Jesus in The Miracle Maker — plays an effete movie director in Hail, Caesar!) And it is fun to see Jack Huston, star of the upcoming Ben-Hur remake, appear in a cameo as one of Capitol Pictures’ many movie stars.

It’s also fun to hear the characters talk about movies we never see with titles like On Wings as Eagles and The House of Ahasuerus. It’s a reminder of a time when writers and audiences were more biblically literate and could reference the Bible in their titles even when the stories themselves didn’t actually come from the Bible.

As entertaining as Hail, Caesar! is in places, I must confess that it doesn’t strike me as top-tier Coen brothers, at least not on first viewing. Actors like Tilda Swinton (who plays rival twin gossip columnists) and Jonah Hill (as a notary who steps in whenever the studio needs a “person” to take the fall for some celebrity’s misdeeds) appear so briefly and get so little to do that their fans may be disappointed. The scene where Fiennes tries to get drawling cowboy star Ehrenreich to speak upper-class dialogue is less funny in the film than it was in the trailer that featured this scene. And all the various setpieces are just barely held together by the sketchiest of plots.

But as an absurdist romp through Hollywood history and a provocative, deeply ironic riff on politics and religion and the things that give us meaning, Hail, Caesar! is a delight. As Mannix himself might say, the picture has worth.

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