Early in the Coen Brother’s latest farce Hail, Caesar! the perpetually busy but never shaken studio executive/celebrity-problem solver Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) takes a brief respite to review the dailies of Capital Pictures’ latest sword-and-sandles prestige picture, also titled Hail, Caesar! At the time of Mannix’s viewing, the special effects – such as they were in the 1950s – had not yet been committed to celluloid so in place of the fictional film’s Jesus is instead a title card bluntly reading “DIVINE PRESENCE TO BE SHOT.” The Coens spend the rest of the film doing exactly that.
Like the Coens’ other post-modern nonsense movie, The Big Lebowski, the plot of Hail, Caesar! is kind of besides the point but here’s the rundown anyway. Mannix is barely holding his big budget picture together after discovering that his leading man, the excellently named Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is missing. Mannix soon discovers that Whitlock has been kidnapped by a group of professorly communists calling themselves, in a particularly unsubtle turn, “The Future”. While investigating this caper, Mannix divides his attention between pregnant starlets, increasingly tempting Lockheed Martin job offers and crushing Catholic guilt. As you can see, this is a Coen Brothers movie.
Importantly, the film functions well as a straight farce comedy. The return of Funny Clooney (far superior to Maudlin Director Clooney) is a delight with his surprising but dopey openness to Marxism as he continues to launch into tone deaf name-dropping Hollywood anecdotes. There is a reason the (real-life) studio used him to sell the movie. However, relative new arrival Alden Ehrenreich steals the show as Hobie Doyle, the western star who Mannix, playing the film-exec-cum-Christ figure, anoints to be the next leading man in a high-brow comedy of manners.
Ehrenreich plays the part with a clueless earnestness that is both endearing and oddly riveting. In the film’s funniest scene serious director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), now saddled with a woefully miscast cowboy, struggles to coach Doyle through the seemingly undeliverable line “Would that it t’were so simple.” The irony of Doyle being unable to stumble through that particular sentence is not lost on Laurentz. It is lost on Doyle.
The film is composed of these little vignettes which can lend the plot a disjointed feeling. The thread from one scene to the next is often tenuous and Mannix encounters random interruptions and crises throughout the day that are later resolved off-screen as though they never happened. Those looking for firm clear plotting should look elsewhere. However, what the film lacks in narrative cohesion it makes up for with a fascinating and crisp thematic through line.
Nineteenth century British poet and art critic Matthew Arnold once floated the idea that eventually, in a true student-surpassing-teacher moment, art will come to replace religion. In Caesar the Coens have interpreted this as a call to action. Dancing right on the line between homage and satire, the Coens flit from genre to genre dismantling our grand myths along the way until all that remains is what is truly important – movies.
When Mannix meets with local representatives from various religious (so he can make sure his new Jesus movie doesn’t offend anyone) he becomes flustered and annoyed with the plurality of answers to what he sees as a simple question: who was Jesus Christ? The religious experts offer each of their respective religions’ answer to the question but it quickly descends into useless esoteric bickering. Mannix leaves unsatisfied and ultimately decides it isn’t an important question.
Whitlock closes the film with a dramatic in-character speech where his Roman officer, kneeling at the feet of Jesus on the cross, illustrates the moment he literally saw the light prompting his conversion to monotheism. He recounts an earlier encounter where Jesus offered water to slaves before offering it to Romans, an obvious breach of social mores. Whitlock is brought to tears as he finally grasps the beauty of this moment, understanding that slaves and Romans are indeed equivalent. Illustrating the true power of cinema, Clooney delivers the speech with such urgency that the audience does get wrapped up in it even though we know, even more than usual, that Clooney is an actor delivering lines. Unfortunately, the take is ruined when Whitlock cannot remember the last word of his monologue. That word is faith.
However, the point stands. It does not matter if the religious leaders decide that Jesus was the son of god, actually god, the Nazarene, inside all of us or just some guy. Like Whitlock, we can forget faith if we remember to look upon slaves and Romans equally. We do not need the grand narrative of religion or the grand science of socialism to teach us that. The Coens’ nihilism is not the kind that tells us that nothing matters. It is the kind that tells that because nothing inherently matters we get to decide what really matters. And we make that decision through our stories, our cultural narratives.
Therefore, the truth – or grandness – of the stories we tell is irrelevant. The Communist plot, built on the carefully calibrated science of Marxism falls apart in the background of a throwaway scene. The audience knows that Whitlock’s closing dialogue isn’t true even within the fiction of the movie. But the feeling it evokes is true. Mannix tosses aside an offer to work with the genuinely patriotic Lockheed-Martin because, as his Catholic priest tells him, god wants us to do what is right. And making movies is right. Telling stories is right. Making bombs is not right. Our collective narratives, the lessons we value and hand down in a plethora of forms from generation to generation, the art, that’s what’s important.
Hail, Caesar! is more than the Coens’ love letter to film and classic Hollywood. It’s a love letter to stories at large, an outlandish, absurdist but achingly sincere declaration that our art, our cultural artifacts and the values explicated therein matter. They are bigger than “truth”. As Andrei Tarkovsky said: “The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”