Hail, Caesar! is remarkable. No film has ever seemed so intent on creating a feeling of purposelessness. No film that has ever tried to create that feeling has been so successful. Hail, Caesar! is roughly a day in the life of a Hollywood executive, Eddie Mannix (a dispirited Josh Brolin), trying to fix problems on his studio backlot while also navigating a professional crisis that’s quickly becoming more existential. As incident layers upon incident in Hail, Caesar! with negligible narrative impact and no moral development in the lives of the characters, it’s easy to sympathize with Mannix’s ennui. If you find yourself thinking, “This is all breezy and fun, but what’s the point?” as you watch the film, you might expect Mannix to give you a knowing look. He finds small consolation in the end. If you stick with it, you will too.
More remarkable still, Hail, Caesar! is also scene-to-scene surprising, consistently funny, and steeped in enough classic Hollywood lore to recommend the film as the kind of Midnight Movie at which people dress in costume and yell things at the screen in unison. I haven’t been this riotously entertained by a film in a long time, but then again, I am a film buff. Many times I was the only one laughing in the packed preview screening I attended that doubled as our press screening. My wife actually leaned over at one point to tell me to be quiet. (One character’s story is salted with Vertigo references, and by the end of the film I just couldn’t contain my mirth anymore.) The Coen brothers so perfectly captured the tenor of late-40s/early-50s Hollywood, a time of tenacious frivolity. They augmented that atmosphere with ironic references to so many classic films. And they did all of this with their characteristic, understated cinematic panache. I was in cinephile heaven.
The Coen brothers make two kinds of movies – funny movies and serious movies. But they’re never more serious than when they’re being obviously funny. Hail, Caesar! is as explicitly comedic a film as they have ever made, but the concern running underneath all the sequences of Scarlett Johansson as a Busby Berkeley bathing beauty, Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelly-come-lately, and George Clooney mugging passionately for the Capitol Studios cameras is about whether or not this endless work of making entertainment for the masses has any worth at all. Notice all the clocks in the film. Does the time ever really matter? No, because the inanity is endless.
Eddie Mannix is having a crisis of faith about the eternal value of his life. Eddie frequents the confessional. He clings tightly to his Rosary beads in his office late at night. He even calls in a cadre of Christian and Jewish religious leaders to get their opinions on a new film, the titular “Hail, Caesar,” that he hopes both makes a lot of money and contributes meaningfully to the religious lives of its audience.
At the risk of spoiling one of my favorite scenes in the film—like almost every scene in Hail, Caesar!, it is hilarious—Mannix’s meeting with the priests, pastor, and rabbi doesn’t go as he hopes. He wants their opinion on the theological content of the Biblical epic he’s making. They want to either argue about the nature of God amongst themselves or critique the implausibility of the movie’s action sequences. They barely care how accurately Christ is portrayed as long as the movie uses movie stars to make their faith seem popular. They couldn’t care less about Mannix. In fairness to the clergy, the main reason Mannix called them in is to get them to sign-off on the film for publicity purposes. The studio doesn’t want to offend any potential ticket buyers. Perhaps those clergy have been in meetings like that one before and know what’s truly motivating the conversation. (As someone who has been in those meetings myself, I sympathized with everyone involved.) Ultimately, the scene underscores Mannix’s inability to find any meaning in what he does even when he’s making a movie on behalf of God. As in other Coen brothers movies, greed and hubris taint all.
The Coens have long made Ecclesiastical films in which the search for meaning is confounded by the complete absence of it in the world, films in which truth is hard to find, and when you do, you’re likely to wish you hadn’t. Setting Hail, Caesar! on a Hollywood backlot where every surface is constructed and personal, public images are changed to fit marketing plans is the perfect setting for these kinds of questions about life. And any time a film-within-the-film sequence gets too engrossing, the Coens find a way to jerk you back out of it and remind you it’s all fake. In one instance they include a stage and curtains within the image. In another they burn up the negative while you’re watching it. Sometimes it’s as simple as a quick cut to an unnamed crew member watching the scene be filmed. None of it is real. None of it is true. Anyway, “the audience doesn’t care about the truth. They just want something to believe in.”
Ah! There it is. If I say anymore, I risk spoiling the fun, and the fun may be all the whole point after all.
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