Underneath all the silliness and hijinks, the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! is a full-throated defense of movies, and of art, in general. Many films have attempted this (The Monuments Men being a recent example), but few so effectively. More often than not, these films feel like a desperate attempt on the part of the filmmaker to justify his existence to the audience. The brilliance of the Coen Brothers, however, is that they embed their defense within a rousing celebration of film. Cowboys, mermaids, sailors, centurions; they’re all here, and eager to make you happy.
The primary story revolves around a day in the life of Eddie Mannix, a studio executive whose job consists of managing directors, writers, movie stars, lawyers, and reporters. He rarely gets to see his long-suffering wife, and often has to lie to people to stay ahead. And underneath it all is a deep concern that his life is wasted on the frivolous pursuits of moviemaking. This is never more apparent than when Eddie is offered a job at Lockheed Martin, just as they’re helping construct the atomic bomb. Surely, that would be a life of worth and meaning, unlike these silly little pictures he cobbles together.
Eddie seems to feel so existentially worthless that he sees a priest at least once a day to confess his sins. It gets to the point that the priest himself assures him that he’s really not that bad and that he doesn’t need to check in quite so often. I have no doubt that many can relate to these thoughts, as many people are quick to trivialize a life in the arts. Why, just recently, I was watching a video by a noted Youtube reviewer in which he was lamenting recent changes in Youtube’s monetization policy. In the comments, I noted that even fans of this reviewer were unsympathetic to his plight, often summarizing their thoughts with, “Get a real job.”
But, of course, creating art is a real job, and one that can make the world a better place, even if people don’t quite realize or acknowledge it. With their film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it became apparent that the Coen Brothers were big fans of Preston Sturges’ Sullivans Travels and its message. With Hail, Caesar!, they’ve actually gone and made their own version of that story.
However, in crafting a defense of a life in the arts, they realized that they were going to have to show us as much of it as possible. So we are treated to singing and dancing, hokey old Westerns, Roman epics, and British melodramas, each featuring modern day movie stars like Channing Tatum, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, and Ralph Fiennes. The production quality of Hail, Caesar! is top notch, but it is even better in the films contained within, with wonderful titles like Lazy Ol’ Moon and Merrily We Dance.
While Eddie’s juggling of troublesome talent is par for the course, what’s particularly special about this day is that one of his biggest stars, Baird Whitlock (played with oblivious vanity by George Clooney), has been kidnapped by a mysterious group calling itself “The Future”. As Eddie attempts to pay the ransom, the group (which freely identifies as Communist) indoctrinates Whitlock against the greedy Hollywood machine, convincing him of his own complicity in creating a shallow, hedonistic industry. Whitlock’s journey mirrors Mannix’s, but their reactions are notably different, and in that difference we find the Coens’ true beliefs about moviemaking.
Hail, Caesar! is the Coens at their most joyful. In what could have been a chaotic mess, the film instead rolls along fluidly, with the help of Roger Deakins’ larger than life cinematography and Carter Burwell’s appropriately bombastic score. The actors pitch in, as well, with each performance at just the right level of absurdity; heightened without ever tipping into silliness. Much praise is due to Josh Brolin, who plays Mannix as a gruff wheeler-dealer, but whose moral philosophies are clearly what drive him. Attention should also be payed to Alden Ehrenreich as a young, seemingly-naive on-screen cowboy whose agreeable nature denotes a deeply gracious attitude. While others on the studio lot may run around making demands, he knows how lucky he is, and is just happy to be here.
In the end, Mannix comes face-to-face with his concerns about the disposability of his career choices. And while neither Mannix nor the Coen Brothers have any illusions about the absurdity of the movie industry, there’s little doubt how they feel about movies themselves, and the desire to make them. Movies can both entertain and challenge, bringing together cast, crew, and audience. Going to the movies can be a communal experience, while also intensely personal. Yes, there are a lot of bad movies out there, just as there are a lot of bad moviemakers, but Hail, Caesar! is the Coen Brothers’ attempt to remind us that, by and large, “the movies” have been pretty good to us.