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Film Review: Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar! (2016; Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)

The surprisingly wonderful new comedy from the Coen Brothers is a triumph of referential subtext over surface text, over rounded characters, over even narrative itself. A deceptively light but truthfully rich and thoughtful position-taking on the symbolic and spiritual function of Hollywood cinema, it compares and contrasts the sparkly bauble of Studio Era film product to the totalizing ideologies of Communism and Catholicism and, with a peculiar twist idiomatic of Joel and Ethan Coen, finds it much more analogous to the latter. The ideological angle is so overt as to nearly transcend the subtextual, but it doesn’t prevent Hail, Caesar! from indulging in masterful sequences of craft and entertainment that are homages to the skilled delights that Old Hollywood deployed with such regularity.

Hail, Caesar! is the title of the both the movie and a movie-within-a-movie here (or one of several), an epic prestige picture of Ancient Rome and Jesus Christ being produced by (the fictional) Capitol Pictures. Its star is classic leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who is kidnapped in the midst of filming by a mysterious group who call themselves The Future, later revealed to be a Communist cell of disaffected film writers and frustrated academics, including Frankfurt School grandee Herbert Marcuse (John Bluthal), and a 220px-hail2c_caesar21_postersurprising benefactor and ringleader (I’ll have to spoil a few things to discuss the film properly and indeed already have, but I’ll leave this twist alone).

As The Future fills Baird’s largely-empty head with Marxist notions, the studio’s head of production and legendary “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) attempts to find his star before the picture is imperiled and, more importantly, before the press, represented by gossip journalist twins Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), makes a story of the absence. The harrassed Mannix is also managing other potential crises, including the scandalous pregnancy of the unwed synchronized swimming actress DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) and the extremely awkward studio-mandated image change of singing cowboy hayseed Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), while also considering a lucrative corporate headhunting offer from Lockheed for his services as well as his own intense Catholic guilt, which warrants daily confessions to an increasingly exasperated priest.

The kidnapping and ransom plot of Hail, Caesar! is threadbare and a little rote, a return to a favoured well by the Coens that could be criticized as lazy writing or understood as self-aware (and self-effacing) meta-commentary of Hollywood’s own habitual recourse to conventional tropes. Considering the ideas that the film is otherwise playing with, I favour the latter reading. Anne Helen Petersen wrote insightfully for Buzzfeed about what the film has to say about Hollywood’s construction of images and of meaning through them, while Jeet Heer shared a series of Twitter thoughts about its suggestions about cinema, religion, and politics. I may trespass on their interpretive territory, but have no interest in simply regurgitated their arguments, so check those pieces out. But there’s little doubt that Hail, Caesar! sees the dream-factory of 1950s Hollywood as the spiritual heir of the Roman Catholic Church, engaged in an image-centric neo-Counter-Reformation against both modern secular cynicism and totalizing (and anti-religious) political theories like Marxism.

Don’t believe me? Consider the text’s own evidence. Mannix (a sympathetic and scrubbed-up version of the much nastier real-life studio fixer of the same name) is a devout Catholic, as mentioned, and once his belief is established, the Coens and master cinematographer Roger Deakins set about melding his faith in God with his faith in movies. One beautiful shot sees Mannix silhouetted next to the three crucifixes of Calvary on a soundstage, his faith and his work in composed harmony despite his questioning in confession if they are not incongruous. The priest tells Mannix that God wants us to do what is right, and Mannix, despite all the attendant wrong and sin in the movie business, believes it not only to be good but to be, in a practical sense, God himself. No wonder that he is hesitant about the Lockheed offer, as the headhunter shows him a photo of the hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll, a more terrifying example of man playing God.

In one early scene, Mannix brings together Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Jewish leaders, ostensibly to obtain their approval of the script for Whitlock’s Rome/Christ movie, to ensure that it does not offend any of them. Some theological bickering ensues, with the rabbi in particular dismissive of the non-divine “Nazarene”, but Mannix obtains the shrugged assent of all denominations in the end. The great Judeo-Christian faiths are here subordinate to Hollywood’s image-making, to their graven icon of the Christ, and are summoned to rubber-stamp it. The joke (because this is Coens, there is always a joke) is that Mannix promises them that the film-within-a-film’s depiction of Christ is tasteful, indeed he’s barely shown in it; he’s also barely shown in Hail, Caesar! and we never see his face, an approach reminiscent of the Islamic prohibition on representing the Prophet Muhammad. The vague absence of the deity comes up again as Mannix watches dailies of the biblical epic and Saul of Tarsus is struck down by the power and glory of God, but that glory is represented only by a droll plate reading: “Divine presence yet to be shot”.

Hollywood’s religious but ungodly dimension is made explicit near the film’s end, as Whitlock returns to the set of “Hail, Caesar!” to deliver his Roman general character’s speech of revelation and conversion to the monotheistic faith of the crucified Christ. The cadences of Clooney’s voice build, Carter Burwell’s score swells with inspirational fervour, and crew members glance up from their mundane behind-the-scenes tasks with shining eyes. Whitlock’s character is coming to Jesus, but the common faith of the studio production team is the movies themselves. But this is the Coens, so at the emotional pinnacle of the speech Whitlock forgets the final, key line: “faith”.

This happens time and again in Hail, Caesar!, as impeccable and wondrous productions on the Capitol lot summon transcendent imagery for our astonished eyes before dissolving into frustrated cuts at the last moment. The magical watery Bubsy Berkeley geometric patterns of Moran’s mermaid musical break down when the grumbling pregnant starlet is pulled out of her uncomfortable costume. Doyle’s incredible horseback stunt work (he later casually shows off from fancy rope tricks, too) is cut short as he is rushed off to star in a sophisticated black-and-white drawing-room comedy of manners of the Ernst Lubitsch sort directed by the urbane Englishman Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) to which he (and his western range accent) is comically ill-suited. Even the spectacular highlight sequence, the giddy “No Dames” sequence from a dancing sailor musical starring the Gene Kelly-esque Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), peters out after over-the-top awesomeness.

And yet these scenes, like Whitlock’s speech about the movies as religious faith, express deeper hopes and desires with blazing images: for Moran, a fantasy of feminine harmony; for Doyle, the grace and joy of the rural cowboy contrasted with the alienated discomfort of urban life (although he finds a good balance between the two during an endearing date with a Carmen Miranda-like Latina actress, played by Veronica Osorio and winkingly named Carlotta Valdez); and for Gurney and his fellow dancing sailors, a long-suspected homosexual subtext bursting unmissably into view (although Gurney’s own guarded secret, revealed by a hilarious and ironic visual homage to Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, is quite different).

The opposing view to the glowing (but problematized) assessment of Hollywood’s role as a beacon of faith to America’s unfaithful masses is The Future’s Marxist-Leninist interpretive paradigm. Leaning heavily on the Frankfurt School of Marcuse and their conception of mass entertainment as manipulative propaganda for the entrenched capitalist order, The Future are a club of disaffected leftist screenwriters who seek to embed Marxist ideas in the movies and believe a high-profile convert like Baird Whitlock will legitimize their cause. They meet in a toney Malibu beachside mansion to discuss their treasured theories with a certain comedic lack of awareness (“We’re not talking about money, we’re talking about economics!”), eat finger sandwiches, and have overt ties to the Stalinist Soviet Union. If these self-important, traitorous buffoons are the best and brightest of the Hollywood Left, the Coens seem to be saying (with tongues at least partially in cheeks), then the McCarthyist blacklist can’t come soon enough.

When Whitlock returns to the Capitol studio lot, he repeats the conspiratorial theories of The Future to Mannix, casting aspersion on the exploitative owners of the means of production at the head of the studio and implying that his days as a good soldier are over. Mannix replies by beating the objections out of his star (his clearest instance of resemblance to his historic namesake) and cowing him into finishing the film: “Hail, Caesar! A Story of the Christ”. The ironic title of the film-within-a-film emphasizes Hollywood’s conquest and secularization of Judeo-Christian belief-systems for its own ends, be those ends capitalist profit, ideological indoctrination, or as much of both as can safely coexist. In Hail, Caesar!, Hollywood movies may retain a certain religiously-derived function of imagistic storytelling, but it never questions that the studio system, in its classic era and even today, renders unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.

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