3 Stars - Irreverent
Their love of cinema seems to be a primary motive of Joel and Ethan Coen in creating the film Hail Caesar. Billed as a comedy, the humor is subtle and requires a level of sophistication in film craft to catch the messages. Unlike the first two of their self-described “numbskull trilogy” staring George Clooney, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty, this film seldom plays off eccentric characters but rather weaves a tapestry of historic film genres of 1951 Hollywood.
Although the film title focuses on the genre of the Roman world and the life of Jesus, there is also a stylish nod to the genres of the musical, aquatic dance, drama and singing cowboy. But the larger plot focuses not on the films so much as on the responsibilities of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). Called the “fixer”, Mannix has the responsibility not only to manage the development of the films for the Capitol production company but to care for the individual actors and directors in their unique problems and needs.
As a practicing Catholic who is seeking to be respectful of Jesus, Mannix invites not only the head of the Catholic League of Decency, but a Jewish rabbi, Orthodox priest and Protestant minister to advise him on the script of Hail Caesar: A Tale of the Christ. An obvious illusion to the acclaimed Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the central character is the Roman Centurion who came to faith in Jesus played by the actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). The humor the Coen brothers inject into this aspect of the film, plays up the very disrespect that their fictional character Mannix was trying to avoid. This disrespect varies from the too frequent confessions of Mannix to his priest to the whimsical theological statements of the gathered religious leaders. Similarly the Coens’ inclusion of the Communist infiltration of the writers in Hollywood is done with a humor that underplays the danger the McCarthy era evoked.
The same is true of the exploration of the morality, or lack thereof, of the stars owned and managed by the studio. This is seen in the aquatic star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) whose onscreen persona is one of innocence while Mannix has to “fix” the problem of her unwed pregnancy. As a Catholic he protects the life of the baby and the reputation of his star. Similarly, when the head of the studio chose to cast the singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in a sophisticated drama with the temperamental director, Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), it is Mannix who must manage their egos and careers.
Hail Caesar is right in line with the earlier work of the Coen brothers and there are scenes that may offend some among us, but their love for cinema is clear. It is this love that comes through in their films.
- In the final scene when the Centurion is expressing his faith in Jesus the crew is moved by his affirmation. Yet the Coen brothers took that moment to create a juxtaposition between acting and reality. Did you find that moment discomforting or funny? Why do you think you respond as you do?
- The fact that Mannix is continually having to watch over the stars of the studio was both his joy and his pain. If you have people you are responsible to supervise at work, how do you deal with both the joy and the pain this causes you?
- The character George Clooney plays in this film is not as moronic as the other two “numbskull” films. How do comedy versions of serious subjects impact you?