Hail, Caesar! occupies a strange place in Joel and Ethan Coen’s overall canon – basically none at all. Their 2016 comedy, set in the heart of Old Hollywood starring Josh Brolin – and everyone else who’s ever been in a movie- sort of just came and went. It arrived after a string of the brothers’ most grounded, viscerally sad work (I still can’t bring myself to rewatch “Inside Llewyn Davis”), so the tonal whiplash of the next offering was maybe one of the reasons for its confused, but still relatively warm reception. Or perhaps it was hard at the time to separate the film from it’s semi-misleading marketing; especially a trailer that advertised a far more streamlined version of what we actually got.
The most common reaction, even from people who enjoyed it, was somewhat reductive in itself. The idea was that Hail, Caesar! was a film where the Coens get to “let their hair down” as Mark Kermode put it; throwing any substantial meaning to the wind and just having a good time at the movies, about the movies. That’s partly true – it’s one of their most purely fun offerings. But I personally think it’s just as brilliant, just as clever, as some of the best stuff they’ve made. Maybe, in many ways, even more so because the mostly dismissive reaction to it ended up proving its most valuable point.
So to recap the story; it’s 1951 and we follow a day in the life of studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) with a lot of problems to fix. A surprise pregnancy from a squeaky-clean starlet. A thunderously miscast cowboy actor thrown into Ralph Fiennes’ chamberpiece comedy. Oh, and the biggest name on the lot, George Clooney’s would-be Roman soldier Baird Whitlock, has been kidnapped by some dastardly commie writers! Calling themselves “The Future.” All this comes while Mannix entertains an offer to join energy company Lockheed – to join “the real world,” as it is emphasised.
Most of the film involves Mannix hopping around the studio to chase after the whims and affairs of the various stars, and through him we get a peek into the doldrums of moviemaking; the awkward, bored silences as the below-the-line cast and crew await the “action!” call, the agony of a lead actor continuing to flub a pivotal line, etc. But just as often, the film becomes the films, and we’re drawn into the fantasy worlds being realised in front of our eyes. The blurring of lines when the title ‘Hail, Caesar!’ is revealed during the dallies of the in-universe film Clooney stars in, cannot be an accident.
But here’s the thing. All of the interludes are absolutely wonderful. From Scarlett Johansson leading a divine synchronised water ballet as a mermaid, to Alden Ehrenreich’s rootin’ tootin’ cowboy work, to an off-the-walls homoerotic dance piece by Channing Tatum and his merry band of sailors, the film knowingly – and sometimes, even lovingly – stops the narrative dead in its tracks to indulge in the charms of these long-dormant forms of cinema. More unkind critics closer to the time dismissed the film as basically just a shoestring excuse to have these scenes in particular; they positioned Brolin’s Mannix as a sort-of Forrest Gump-like figure bumbling from soundstage to soundstage in search of the latest variety show.
As stated before, they don’t move the plot forward in any meaningful way. It’s pure escapism. A distraction. Is that not the point? They’re beautifully crafted in such a way, that any baggage you had going into that scene, any worries, hell, any cares about the whole Clooney-kidnapping-thing – falls by the wayside and you focus on enjoying the spectacle. And it’s in this that the Coens prove their point, proving the unchecked danger of these old films they grew up watching, at the exact same time they acknowledge their sentimental worth. The breath of fresh air they provide wordlessly explains the need for these films to exist; the unwillingness to interrogate or create any substantial meaning beyond the sound and vision provokes the question: “at what cost?”
What is the purpose of pouring all this time and effort into something seemingly, intentionally mindless? How much are you limiting this medium? Or is there a grace in the simplicity – an essentialness to it? Hail, Caesar locks horns with both of these questions, but what answer you gain from it is up to you. For one, you’ve got Mannix ultimately deciding to stay at Capital Pictures for this relative level of innocence and simplicity (at least the type that he’s employed to present and protect) over the ambiguity of the real world. As Eddie professes to one of two Tilda Swinton’s characters in the film; “People don’t want the facts, they want to believe. That’s our great industry.”
On the other hand you’ve got the communists, who want to interpret facts to believe in the possibility of a better world. Because they have the misfortune of existing in a Coen brothers film, they don’t ever manage to get around to it – but there are faint glimmers that their worldview has survived into the world of moviemaking that they’ve been blacklisted out of. “I like to think we’ve changed a few minds” one of them remarks to Baird during his extended stay, and the sneakiness of the final monologue in character as his Roman general, suggests this.
“Why should he not take this form – the form of an ordinary man? A man bringing us not the old truths, but a new one… A truth beyond the truth that we can see. A truth beyond this world, a truth told not in words but in light. A truth we can see if we have but…” He forgets the crucial word faith, of course, but his delivery achieves its own sort of magic. As he speaks, not only do the other actors in the shot display their wonder, but the crew, the director – something ever-so-slightly awakens in them as well. Even if the spell is immediately broken when Baird screws up the final line, these words have a sort of power when rendered in movie form. And the final part of the joke is that they were almost certainly written by a communist.
Hail, Caesar! is a film very much about its own fantasy. It starts from the name of Brolin’s lead character Mannix, who was based on a man who – by most historical accounts – was all too real. Nothing like the bright, well-intentioned family man Brolin brings to life, and the Coens make no attempts to position this as what actually happened.
But it’s par for the course of a film populated with people obsessed with attempting to find the reality, the meaning, in their lives. George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock, an idiot actor on autopilot, eats up the communists’ messages, finding solace in the fact that he can now become a truly important figure. Johannsson’s Esther Williams-esque DeAnna finds something truly stabilising – and surprisingly sweet – in Jonah Hill’s walk-on roll as a “professional person” to adopt her illegitimate child. So she marries him.
Mannix himself is a Christ-like figure of sorts; walking around the lot, he takes on everyone’s “sins” and washes them out. This question of faith is not subtle – the very first shots of the film are the Son of God on the cross, or a crucifix hanging from a chain, as Mannix prepares to enter a confessional for probably the eighth time that week. The question of faith is tied up with Mannix’s tired faith in cinema, and his job, but his place at the lot is seemingly resolved by the end of the day’s events, and his final commandment to Baird when he returns to the studio:
“You’re gonna go out there and you’re gonna finish “HAIL, CAESAR!” You’re gonna give that speech at the feet of the penitent thief and you’re gonna believe every word you say. You’re gonna do it because you’re an actor and that’s what you do. Just like the director does what he does, and the writer and the script girl and the guy who claps the slate. You’re gonna do it because the picture has worth and you have worth if you serve the picture and you’re never gonna forget that again.”
In short; he trusts his place because he realises that he doesn’t need to shoulder everything himself. He never wanted to. He knows that all that needs to happen is that he upholds his position as well and as passionately as everyone else in the studio, and the world will run ok. Broadly speaking, what does that sound like…?
The only character in the entire film who doesn’t voluntarily relish in being something else, is Hobie Doyle, fuelled by Alden Ehrenreich’s wonderful performance as the sweet, authentic, if dramaturgically-challenged cowboy star. He’s the happiest person Hail, Caesar! has to present, because he knows exactly what he is, who he is, he’s great at it, and he likes it. Nothing more complicated than that. Hobie loves what he does in a way that no other star does – or can. In his insight on the day players, or “extrees” probably having something to do with Whitlock’s situation, he’s the only star who acknowledges a world beyond his own desires. He’s the only “star” that Mannix trusts with the truth. And it’s this clarity and skill that means that he, not Mannix, is the one to rescue Baird in the end.
1951 was an interesting time for Hollywood, despite the efforts of the Mannixes of the world to cover it up. A time obsessed with removing true meaning from the movies, instead upholding the wholesome American image. There’s no politics involved with the wholesome nuclear family, is there? Early Hollywood’s huge role in establishing the white nuclear family as the cinematic default is a piece for another time. At the same time, we have Mannix struggling with finding the meaning in his job – especially after receiving a lucrative offer to join an energy company. To join the future, one could say.
And yet, this future comes with hydrogen bombs and “Armageddon.” It’s scary. It’s real. It makes sense for Mannix to resolve it by basically going “ah, screw it,” and continuing on his way through the land of make-believe. It’s this faith, that people need these doses of artifice, of magic, to help survive. Faith. It’s the word that Whitlock struggles to remember at the end of his climactic speech; one that he smiles in recognition of when it is called back out to him.
Hail, Caesar! can be enjoyed both on it’s sugary-sweet surface and for the deeper, deceptively thoughtful ideas stewing under the bonnet. There are so many delightful little things in this movie – from the all-timer of a scene with the bunch of religious figureheads arguing with each other over the depiction of the godhead, or a sound effect that pops up whenever a dubious film from Whitlock’s past is mentioned. Or just a quiet moment where Hobie waits for his studio-sanctioned date to leave her car, and effortlessly plays with his lasso to pass the time – a genuinely lovely scene by the standards of any film, much less one by the boys who brought you Steve Buscemi being fed into a woodchipper 25 years ago.
There are endless things to love about Hail, Caesar! Mainly because the best satire films are the ones that are made in a specific way so you can actually mistake it for being the thing that you’re satirising. This is one of them. Hail, Caesar! is not just a lightweight love letter to Hollywood. It’s the Coens at their gently subversive best.
Because as Whitlock, Mannix, the Coens, and George Michael said, you gotta have faith.