A whacky and wonderful satire of Hollywood
A Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, a Greek Orthodox priest, and a Jewish rabbi walk into a bar—no, they go fishing—no, they sit in a Hollywood studio office in 1951 and debate whether an upcoming film’s depiction of Jesus will be offensive to reasonable people.
I had a grin on my face from almost the beginning to the end of this marvelous comedy.
That absolutely hilarious scene is the best of many whacky and wonderful scenes in the Coen brothers’ new film, Hail Caesar! It’s a film that begins and ends with Jesus on the cross, has countless references to Christianity, and climaxes with a scene that suggests the entire film is really about faith, or the loss of faith. But Hail, Caesar! is not a film about the Christian faith; it’s a film about faith in Hollywood. This is the Coen brothers’ loving and uproarious homage to the golden days of the Hollywood studio system.
The protagonist of the film is Eddie Mannix, played perfectly by Josh Brolin. He’s a studio “fixer,” the guy who fixes any and all problems related to the making of films by the fictitious Capitol Pictures. Mannix is a religious man, going to the confessional every day to confess the tiniest of sins (smoking a cigarette) while the larger sins of his daily work go unmentioned.
The year is 1951 and the studio is making Westerns, musicals, dramas, adventures, and, of course, biblical epics. Capitol’s latest epic is Hail, Caesar! (subtitled A Tale of the Christ, like Ben-Hur), starring Baird Whitlock as a Roman centurion who encounters Jesus at a well. Whitlock, who is played with delicious silliness by George Clooney, is kidnapped just before the last day of shooting by a group of communist writers who want payback for all their unrewarded work.
That kidnapping is one of the key plot elements, as Mannix tries to fix the problem, but Mannix is also trying to fix the problems of an unmarried pregnant musical star (DeeAnna Moran, played by Scarlett Johansson) and a Western actor (Hobie Doyle, played by Alden Ehrenreich) who knows how to act around horses, not people, but who is needed for a drama directed by Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).
Mannix encounters others along the way, like Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both twins played by Tilda Swinton), competing gossip columnists; Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), a musical star; C. C. Calhoun (Frances McDormand), a film editor; and Joseph Silverman (Jonah Hill), a legal fixer. And let’s not forget to mention Clancy Brown as Whitlock’s costar, Robert Picardo as the rabbi, Alison Pill as Mannix’s wife, and Michael Gambon as the narrator.
With the exception of Brolin, Clooney, and Ehrenreich, I would call the appearances of the aforementioned actors extended cameos—but, oh, what brilliant and funny cameos they are. These cameos do, however, highlight the scattered nature of the film. This is not a tightly narrated story but a series of extended scenes, especially scenes from the various films being shot by Capitol Pictures at the time. Some critics will call this somewhat chaotic set of scenes a mess that destroys the cohesion of the film and fails to allow any characters to develop. But clearly the Coen brothers are deliberately making a different kind of film, one that’s less about the story and its characters (aside from Mannix) and more about satirizing Hollywood and most of the film genres of the time (including film noir as a key piece of the Mannix story).
Hail, Caesar! references countless films made in that period, with Ben-Hur being the most obvious, making it a lot of fun for film buffs. While there is a clear intent to spotlight the absurdity of the studio system, and the film industry as a whole, this is done not with cynicism but with love, which makes all the difference.
Hail, Caesar! also draws attention to key issues of its time, like the Cold War (Mannix is offered a job in the “real world” of nuclear bombs), McCarthyism (communist writers in Hollywood who contrast Capitol Pictures with Marx’s Das Kapital), the lack of racial diversity (much worse than the 2016 Academy Awards), the attitudes toward homosexuality in Hollywood, and, of course, the prevalence and power of the Christian faith.
Given the quality of films made in Hollywood in recent years, it would be fair to say that I have largely lost my faith in Hollywood. But Hail, Caesar! had considerable Hollywood involvement, so all is not lost. Besides the clever writing, strong direction, and outstanding acting throughout, Hail, Caesar! features gorgeous cinematography (which changes with each genre) and a great score. I had a grin on my face from almost the beginning to the end of this marvelous comedy. And while Hail, Caesar! will be most appreciated by film buffs, everyone will enjoy watching this—don’t miss it.
Hail, Caesar! is rated PG-13 for suggestive content and smoking. (Given that the same rating is frequently used for films that feature an hour or more of violent action, I can only shake my head.)
All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.