‘Hail, Caesar!’, Humor, and the Meaning of Movies

Hail-Caesar
George Clooney as buffoonish actor Baird Whitlock in the Coen brothers’ hilarious ‘Hail, Caesar!’ (Universal Studios)

There is a special brand of humor associated with Joel and Ethan Coen— it’s irreverence without the scorn, satire without the snottiness, lines of dialogue that inspire chuckles rather than roars of mirth. “Hail, Caesar!”, the Coen brothers’ latest writing/directing production, expertly toes this comedic line. And though the different threads of plot feel, at times, overextended, the spiritual quest at the heart of the film ultimately shines through.

Like many Hollywood auteurs, the Coens attract a rotating cast of regulars to their films, and it is on these actors’ shoulders that the film rises and falls. Coen vets George Clooney, Josh Brolin and Tilda Swinton don’t so much slip into their roles as melt into them, lending their characters a realness without ragged edges. The actors carry along their past filmography in a way that elevates their performances further: As Eddie Mannix, an overworked Capitol Films executive trying to juggle daily duties with retrieving his kidnapped movie star (George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock), Josh Brolin channels a profound world-weariness. Clooney, in turn, dons his goofball hat in the role of the affably obtuse Whitlock. Tilda Swinton does double duty as twin reporters (Thora and Thessaly Thacker) who espouse journalistic values that aren’t quite as divergent as they repeatedly insist.

Past this trio, the remainder of the ensemble primarily services the film’s humor wheel. Jonah Hill, oddly, gets top billing for a single scene as a stoic lawyer-type. Scarlett Johansson is charming as ever as a Brooklyn-accented, foul-mouthed starlet, but Mannix’s plot to marry her off in order to polish her image feels tacked on. (As usual, Johansson is too talented to realistically inhabit a supporting role; her character would be much better served in a spin-off of her own.) Ralph Fiennes is delightfully funny as prestige period piece director Laurence Laurentz, appearing for all the world like he just wandered off a Wes Anderson set— his fruitless attempt to teach cowboy western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) to deliver a line with any degree of emotional nuance and accurate pronunciation is one of the film’s most amusing gags, complete with a perfect payoff in the editing room of C. C. Calhoun (Frances McDormand).

If that seems like a lot to keep track of, it is. Though the full realization of distinct personalities is usually indicative of strong storytelling, the sheer abundance of characters in “Hail, Caesar!” often distracts from rather than supplements the overall narrative. Mannix is the connective tissue that ties together these disparate plots, but the film barely allows us the space to truly empathize with him. Which is a shame, because Mannix’s contemplative search for the meaning of movies at the dusk of Hollywood’s Golden Age is by far the film’s most compelling story.

“Hail, Caesar!” frames Mannix’s quest in overtly religious tones. The film opens with a swell of somber chamber music and a close-up of Jesus on the cross, an image neatly paralleled towards the end of the film when Mannix approaches three backlit crucifixes on a studio soundstage. Mannix begins and ends his long day in confession— at first, admitting to a petty lie; at last, asking probing questions about what really matters.

“Hail, Caesar!” is an ode to filmmaking, but it does not thoughtlessly idolize the motion picture industry. Anyone involved with or simply in love with movies must ask the same questions Mannix does: Is any of this important, or is the art of Hollywood merely artifice? Do motion pictures mean something, or— as a business executive trying to snatch Mannix away from the industry insists— are they simply “frivolous” distractions from the hydrogen bombs of the real world? Mannix, for one, is dedicated to ensuring the film industry’s worth. In classic Coen brothers fashion, a meeting with four religious leaders plays out like a sketch comedy while also revealing Mannix’s desire to do right by people of faith, as he strives to bestow his own temple— the movie set— with inherent (and, in this case, religious) value. Boldly subtitled “A Tale of Christ,” the film starring Clooney’s Baird Whitlock as a Roman who discovers the humble glory of Christ is woven throughout the overarching narrative of Eddie Mannix— a clever meta-commentary on the movie we’re watching, in which Eddie himself strives for a similar earthly enlightenment.

Mannix’s yearning is inversely paralleled by that of the communist “study group” responsible for Whitlock’s abduction. Nibbling on finger sandwiches in a seaside Malibu villa, a gaggle of blacklisted writers and intellectuals laments their lot in life, using Whitlock as a sympathetic sounding board. But the joke’s on them. They wax poetic on the dialectics of history, science and economics, purporting to champion “the little guy” while a disgruntled maid vacuums the impeccable carpeting and a glowering photographer shoots photos and dirty looks. In their high-minded denunciation of capitalism, the communists miss the point entirely, and underneath the comical dialogue (“You can’t share your own ransom, that would be unethical!”) lies the satire that highlights the contrasting, quietly heroic journey of Eddie Mannix.

By laughing at the communist crew, we implicitly root forMannix, and it’s a mark of the Coen brother’s genius that the high-powered Hollywood pusher— Mannix— becomes the prototypical “little guy” in terms of audience sympathies. When Whitlock parrots the commies’ anti-Capitol(ist) jargon back at him, Mannix responds with an impassioned rant about his movie’s worth. Mannix believes in the profound value of his films, and by the end of “Hail, Caesar!”, so do we.

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