By Abe Rose
Hail, Caesar! is like a love letter to Old Hollywood. But being that the love letter is penned by the Coen Brothers, the tone fits somewhere between whimsical and warped. It has all the elements of a picture nostalgic for the old studio system of the fifties, showcasing the glamor, the prestige and the congratulations that Hollywood self imposes onto itself. But it also gives us glances of the falseness, the illusion: the glimpse of what is behind the curtain. You remember how a few years ago Birdman gave the studio system a scathing rant on how everything it does is meaningless? Hail, Caesar! is not necessarily in the same neighborhood as that, but Birdman occasionally flies by in orbit.
Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, a head of Capitol Pictures and a man who seems to get virtually no sleep. He spends his time scurrying along from a never-ending supply of studio disasters. If a star disappears from the set, it’s his job to make sure the gossip columns don’t get a whiff of it. Studios at this time nearly had complete ownership of every aspect of a star’s persona. They controlled their trademarked looks, required squeaky clean public images, and essentially dictated the terms for Hollywood dating. Being that Hollywood at this time was filled with drugs, orgies, and wild parties, it’s a testament to people like Mannix that the gossip columns never caught on. I at one point attended a panel in which an actor who was a TV regular in the sixties told a long-winded story about how John Wayne always had the best pot. There’s something uncomfortable about knowing that, as if Go Set a Watchman has come to besmirch the good image of Atticus Finch.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Coen Brothers movie without a kidnapping plot. The star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), has been kidnapped by a group called “The Future,” who are demanding a ransom of a hundred thousand dollars. From here on out, the plot gets extremely convoluted in Coen fashion, and that’s what makes the film a delight to unravel. Navigating a Coen movie by plot is like trying to navigate a corn maze blind. The best way to unravel the complexities of the overarching storylines is by following the themes. The place to start is in a key conversation between Mannix and a group of religious figures; they discuss the theological depictions of Christ in their new movie, Hail Caesar! and the studio wants to know if the depiction of Jesus meets with their religious approval.
They argue. Jesus is God, but Jesus is the son of God. Depicting God goes against their beliefs. But as the Jewish rabbi puts it, it doesn’t matter how they portray Jesus, because he doesn’t believe that Jesus is God. Is God angry as is commonly depicted in the Old Testament? Or is God loving as is commonly depicted in the New Testament? I’ve taken a Christology class at a Christian university, and I had a lot of questions going in, and a lot more going out. It is a theological war zone filled with heretical landmines, trying to avoid heresies of Apollonarianism and Arianism, yet also maintaining that Christ was fully God and fully man, and one person with two natures. It’s theological talk like this that rarely shows up in movies. But the further you dig into Hail, Caesar! the more you will start to realize that the film really does live up to its byline, “A Tale of the Christ.”
The film within the film, Hail Caesar! is a Ben-Hur-esque tale of a Roman emperor who encounters Jesus exactly two times. Just like in the original Ben-Hur, people seem to melt at the very presence of Jesus who is merely giving water. And by the end of the movie, long-winded speeches are spoken about how Jesus is truly the Messiah. People were transformed simply by looking into Jesus’s eyes. I always felt that Ben-Hur’s depiction was essentially Christian-esque cotton candy. The crux and fulcrum of the movie was not about Jesus at all, it was about Charlton Heston exciting audiences with that chariot race. It was made to rivet and excite with expensive set pieces and flashy costume design. And then as a last-minute gift, the Christ is inserted at the very end to please the demographics, tricking people into believing that it was truly about faith the whole time. It isn’t. Hail Caesar! shares my criticism. Here we have the big speeches with Jesus on the cross, but we also get to see what goes on when the cameras aren’t rolling. There’s a P.A. who asks the actor on the cross what kind of food he’s to have. The actor playing Jesus doesn’t know. The P.A. asks if he’s a principal actor or an extra. “I…think principal.” That’s not a very confident response for an actor portraying Jesus whose in a movie that’s supposed to be about him.
The film draws several parallels between the body of the studio system and the body of Christ. Mannix takes on the sins of his principal actors, and washes away their transgressions. They are declared righteous in the image of the studio. When one actor is babbling on about how he met up with some communist friends who seemed to have attractive ideas, Mannix slaps this actor around and gives him a speech akin to something like, “Go and sin no more.”
There are various films-within-the-film, but these are not excuses to simply do homages to the deceased genres of Old Hollywood. We have homages to song-and-dance sailor pictures, synchronized swimming musicals, Westerns, and Lawrence Olivier ballroom dramas. But listen closely to the dialogue. There are several instances of overlap. The sailors complain about not having any dames, and mermaids don’t have any legs. In the mermaid picture, Scarlett Johannson’s character yells at the director to get her legs out of her mermaid costume. Meanwhile, the studio is trying to figure out how to cover up the fact that she had a child without first being married to the father. In the old movies, sex doesn’t exist. The perception must be maintained that male and female stars simply have good ol’ fashioned morality, and all genitals are guarded with fish scale chastity belts.
Christ is a complex subject, and movies tends to simplify Christ into a holy Super Saiyan that radiates level-three aura. Hail Caesar! is about the theological paradox of Christ’s personhood, while drawing parallels across the board linking the body of Christ from the studio system to even the capitalist system. That’s probably not going to be the reason why most people will go and see it, for there’s another quality that I haven’t even gotten to. The movie is goofy. How can you not have a movie about kidnapping a movie star dressed in Caesar garb, while also involving a communist plot, a homoerotic dancing group of sailors led by Channing Tatum, a Western movie star who can make a lasso out of spaghetti, and a set of twin reporters both played by Tilda Swinton, and not make the movie goofy?
Goofy theology and all, Hail, Caesar! is the first great film of 2016.