Near the beginning of the Coen Brothers’ new film, Hail, Caesar!, Josh Brolin’s character sits in a dark theater, studying the rough edit of a film still in production. The screen cuts to an actor playing the New Testament character of Saul (eventually known as Paul). As he walks the Damascus road, Saul is met by the Almighty himself. Where an image of God is to be inserted into the movie, a temporary title cuts across the film stock reading: “Divine presence to be shot.”
If the Coen Brothers’ newest comedy could be encapsulated with a single image, it would be an image that hasn’t been filmed yet. For Hail, Caesar!, with all its silliness and absurdity, is about a search for the divine. It’s about locating a presence that isn’t readily seen.While the Coen brothers don’t land in a fixed theological position, they understand that our scrapings at the divine, our many artistic renderings, reflect something true.
Hail, Caesar! shadows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a 1950’s Hollywood “fixer” who works to keep the performers and projects at Capitol Pictures in place and in order. His job description includes late night house calls, misdirecting the press, and a willingness to slap around a movie star or two (but only if they deserve it). When one of Capitol Pictures’ prominent talents, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is abducted and held for ransom, Mannix’s skills are thrown in the grinder. In exchange for the prized actor, the group responsible for Whitlock’s disappearance want what any good character in a Coen Brothers’ film wants: a briefcase full of cash. Fighting a deadline, Mannix only has a day or so to locate Whitlock and bring him back to set; he’s the lead in a new biblical epic that still has one prominent scene to shoot—at the feet of a crucified Jesus no less.
In their films, Ethan and Joel Coen often focus on individual symbols to visualize oblique metaphysical themes and ideas—the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis (life’s seemingly purposeless circularity), the faulty television antenna in A Serious Man (detachment from God), and Javier Bardem’s haircut in No Country for Old Men (the ugliness of depravity) to name a few. In Hail, Caesar! there are two icons; the first symbol being Mannix’s wristwatch. As an individual attuned to every grain of the day, Mannix lives by the ticking hands of his timepiece. Essentially, his job is to keep what is happening behind the scenes behind the scenes, corralling a host of characters only the Golden Age of Hollywood could yield. He sacrifices every minute of the day to serve the depravity of his employees, and for the great good of his employers.
The second prominent image—which relates directly to the first, though rather unusually—is Jesus. Hail, Caesar! opens in a Catholic church, the camera focused squarely on a crucifix. The film, after all, follows the production of a movie similarly dubbed (though with an added subtitle), Hail, Caesar! – A Tale of the Christ. Both the real and fictional Hail, Caesar! films are concerned with the same questions. Namely, what constitutes a religious experience and who ushers this experience to others?
While most of Mannix’s projects would be considered solidly B-movie productions, the Coen brothers find joy in celebrating these seemingly banal assembly line products. The world of Capitol Pictures glows with vibrancy and fervor. The lot holds the keys to the universe, whether it be in a western comedy, Broadway adaptation, mermaid synchronized swim routine, or musical. When one character argues that the industry is void of any type of “spiritual dimension,” Mannix pushes back. He sees the beauty of his time consuming work, even if many of those films and stars will be–to reference a line from the film–forgotten by 2015.
In the movie’s best scene, Mannix sits down with a number of religious figures in hopes of obtaining their theological seal of approval for the studio’s Hail, Caesar! production. The ensuing conversation, regarding the nature of the Father and Son, between a Catholic priest, Greek Orthodox Priest, Rabbi, and a Protestant minister (which already sounds like the beginning of rowdy joke) is as sidesplitting as it is tongue-in-cheek—the Coen brothers brilliantly satirizing recent discussions surrounding biblical movies like Noah and Exodus. The set piece also works as an inquiry into the nature of the film industry itself. The studio is concerned about making a movie that “will not offend anyone.” Art and product are so often easily intertwined. Can both work together?
The Coen brothers find a way to package these more cumbersome ideas into their funniest project since Raising Arizona. The cast is A+ perfect, with Alden Ehrenreich’s Hobie Doyle—a dawdling Capitol Pictures actor known mostly for silent performances in cheap Westerns—nearly stealing the show. It also helps when the individuals playing an eclectic set of Hollywood personalities are actually an eclectic set of Hollywood personalities (Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, and Frances McDormand to name a few). The film also includes an extended Channing Tatum tap-dance scene that’s sure to put anything he did in the Magic Mike films to shame.
The film’s vibrant characters and toe-stomping routines is collaged by Roger Deakins’ near perfect photography. Old Hollywood is revived in a warm palette that evokes formula mid-twentieth century America. Herein lies a glimpse into the genius of Hail, Caesar!. With its meandering plot and nearly anti-climatic climax, the film hides behind the guise of unimportance. But just like Mannix sees the spiritual quality in his B-movie “children,” Hail, Caesar! is anything but trivial.
That quality is why it’s difficult for Mannix to leave Capitol Pictures after he’s offered a job at an engineering company, Lockheed. His recruiter lures him by arguing that movies are “all make believe.” They’re doing real work at Lockheed he says, showing Mannix a picture of an atomic bomb explosion. A good man whose only transgressions seem to be indulging in a cigarette or three, Mannix is torn. Unlike the title character in the Coen brothers’ 1991 Barton Fink—who also works for a Capitol Pictures—Mannix doesn’t just say he’s for the common man, he is committed to bring them stories they can enjoy. In one scene from Barton Fink, John Turturro’s troubled screenwriter opens a Bible in his grungy hotel room. As he flips to Genesis 1, the words morph into his own. Fink’s universe is him, and he is his universe. His idea of spiritual connection can only be found in himself and the “grandiose” text he painfully creates.
Conversely, Mannix’s burden—time—while often depicted in film as a form of slavery that slowly sucks away the life juice of its inhabitants, functions in Hail, Caesar! as something entirely different. Sure, it emphasizes Mannix’s servitude to Capitol Pictures, but that’s not necessarily a negative trait. Time, Mannix’s work, is noble and loyal because it contributes to something he believes is greater. Here, the watch takes on its true symbolism: it’s Mannix’s incarnation into the world of cinema—a medium, in his mind, that brings joy to multitudes. Or, as he says to one performer, “You have worth if you serve the picture.”
Mannix eventually finds himself praying about his employment decision at the the foot of the cross—Calvary has been recreated as a set for Whitlock’s film. Mannix searches for the spiritual in his work, though sometimes it feels like looking at a temporary title card.
When the film does offer audiences a glimpse at divine presence, it’s during a scene at the above mentioned “Golgotha.” In it, one character (I won’t say who) makes a speech that overflows with faith and emotion; his character finally realizes who Jesus is. Hearing the dialogue, the crew, as well as the audience, feels a swell of supernatural vision in their bones—until it’s bookended by the Lord’s name taken in vain.
We know that Hollywood is “make believe”—the speeches aren’t “real”—but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t give us truth every once in awhile. While the Coen brothers don’t land in a fixed theological position, they understand that our scrapings at the divine, our many artistic renderings, reflect something true. Often, like the television antenna in A Serious Man, our reception of God’s presence finds itself swallowed by static. We search for a vision, and often can’t see it. Even our Christ figures—and Hail, Caesar! has its Christ figures—are just mirrors of the true Father and Son.
Like the Coen Brothers’ filmography, Hail, Caesar! longs for this Divine presence, just if and when it believes it will be shot is another question altogether.