There's a lot about Hail, Caesar! that will bring back memories of Joel & Ethan Coen's early work: the Old Hollywood setting of Barton Fink, the powerful men sitting behind desks, the kidnapping subplot, the enchanting screwball energy, etc. Even so, the darkness that has consumed some of their recent films (No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis in particular) constantly seems to be lurking beneath the surface. The conflict between the film's lightweight triviality and its deep spiritual angst creates a fascinating, deliberately contradictory tone: very little of what happens in the movie really matters, but it's a movie about the things that really matter.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, True Grit) is a talented “fixer” who works for Capitol pictures, one of the most esteemed studios in Hollywood. When a movie star has a scandal that needs to be covered up or when a director runs into a seemingly unresolvable conflict with an actor, Eddie's the guy who steps in and figures out how to make things right. Capitol's most ambitious current production is Hail, Caesar!, a sprawling religious epic in the vein of Ben-Hur (it shares that film's subtitle: A Tale of the Christ). That film stars the wildly popular, Charlton Heston-esque Baird Whitlock (a charmingly self-absorbed George Clooney, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) as a Roman centurion whose life is transformed by a brief encounter with Jesus. Things seem to be going well, but the production runs into serious trouble when Whitlock is kidnapped by a group of Hollywood Communists (clearly modeled on the Hollywood Ten) and held for ransom. Now, Eddie is tasked with finding Whitlock while simultaneously attempting to deal with the laundry lists of other problems on his plate.
This feels like the starting point for one of the Coens' delightfully knotty yarns (Miller's Crossing and The Big Lebowski in particular seem to take perverse pleasure in the sheer density of their stories), but one of the most surprising things about Hail, Caesar! is that its surface-level plot is both remarkably simple and fairly insignificant. There's no real mystery or tension in the kidnapping story, and a series of third-act resolutions are mostly delivered with a shrug. This will likely be a problem for some viewers (it certainly was for some of the folks at my screening), but don't mistake the lack of story for a lack of substance: this is a deeply thoughtful religious allegory presented in the form of a goofy comedy.
God has long been a fairly elusive figure in the Coenverse, and one of the most amusing early scenes in Hail, Caesar! finds a group of men debating the very nature of the Almighty. Mannix has called in a group of respected religious leaders to offer their thoughts on the theological content of Capitol's latest religious epic, but their conversation quickly devolves into a heated argument about how Jesus ought to be depicted: is he a man, or God, or the son of God, or all three, or something else entirely? Mannix is a little baffled by the conflicting opinions being offered, but he seems surprisingly sincere in his desire to understand. Yes, he's a Catholic, and the Catholic church has fairly definitive views on the matter, but Mannix primarily seems to have joined the church for therapeutic reasons. He goes to confession on a daily basis, admitting to all of his minor personal sins (“I had two cigarettes today... maybe three...”) while omitting his professional ones (one of the first things we see Mannix do is bribe two police officers to ignore the scandalous behavior of a young actress).
Why doesn't the perpetually guilt-ridden Mannix seem to feel any guilt about all of the unsavory things his job requires him to do? Perhaps because, well, it's his job. It doesn't take long to see that the film is depicting Mannix as a Christ figure of sorts; taking the sins of others as his own burden and granting those sinners a form of redemption. Like Christ, he faces constant temptation to give up on the mighty task that has been given to him. He gets a lucrative job offer from Lockheed, and his occasional encounters with company's representative (Ian Blackman, Inside Llewyn Davis) begin to feel increasingly like the conversations Jesus and Satan had in the desert. Late in the film, there's a brief trip to an empty soundstage that doubles nicely as Eddie's own personal garden of Gethsemane.
There's a lot of talk (both direct and indirect) about religion in the film, but that's not the only sort of guiding philosophy served up for debate. Whitlock's kidnapping quickly leads him into a long conversation about Communism, which the aggrieved writers pitch as a noble, fair-minded alternative to the immorality of capitalism. The Coens have long made immensely clever use of the English language, and there's a lot of sly humor in the way they have their characters use a lot of the same words and phrases to describe wildly different philosophical beliefs (God and Man, it would seem, are both split into multiple parts). These portions of the movie bear a superficial similarity to the recently-released Trumbo (which centered on the most prominent member of the Hollywood Ten), but unlike that film, Hail, Caesar! has no interest in validating (or invalidating) anyone's beliefs. Instead, it looks upon humanity with equal measures of empathy and amusement; observantly noting the similarities and differences in the various strains of the universal search for fundamental truth.
This is a lot to chew on (and I suspect that I'm only scratching the surface – this feels like one of those Coen flicks that more or less demands multiple viewings), but it's all woven throughout a wonderfully ridiculous movie. There are moments here as joyously goofy (and stylish) as anything from the best Coen comedies: a mediocre cowboy actor (a wonderful Alden Ehrenreich, Stoker) struggling to work his way through a period drama directed by the refined Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel), a song-and-dance sequence featuring a tap-dancing Channing Tatum (Magic Mike), an Esther Williams-style synchronized swimming sequence featuring Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin) in a mermaid outfit, Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer) offering an entertaining Hedda Hopper impression (two of them, in fact), a great editing bay gag involving Frances McDormand (Fargo), a ridiculous bit involving a submarine... and those are just some of the big moments. As always, the Coens tend to wring just as many laughs out of minor throwaway bits, like the way Swinton delivers a perfect “mirthless chuckle” a few scenes after Ehrenreich's character tries and fails to deliver a convincing one.
Initially, a lot of the film's most purely entertaining scenes seems to exist for their own sake: they don't really advance the story in any way, but rather give an actor we like a brief moment to shine (few cast members other than Brolin – whose moody, conflicted work ranks among his best performances – get more than a handful of scenes) and give us a few laughs. However, the relative unimportance of these scenes is precisely the point. It's hard to pin down precisely what the Coens believe in terms of politics or religion (their “make gentle fun of everything” approach is fairly diplomatic), but it's clear that they've put a great deal of faith in the healing power of movies (an unseen narrator played by Michael Gambon affectionately refers to them as, “a balm”). The fear of death (whether by atomic bombs or film projectors) may be weighing on everyone to some degree, but every now and then, a dumb singing cowboy movie can replace all of those worries with pure, unadulterated joy. I was reminded of Woody Allen's character in Hannah and Her Sisters, finding his own form of salvation in the silly pleasure of a Marx Brothers movie.
The Coens aren't overestimating the importance of lightweight entertainment – they're well aware of how shallow it is, how little it reflects real life and how business-driven such things are – but they recognize that sometimes it's nice to forget about all of that stuff and escape for a little while. By drawing a direct line between movies and religion, the film seems to be playfully suggesting that the latter is ultimately just elaborate make-believe sustained by hard-working, creative people. And yet, it isn't quite that simple: movies can have real life-changing power when we surrender ourselves to them. All we need is a little... a little... agh... what's the word?
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Year: 2016