|Eddie Mannax in Hail Caesar!|
“An Industry that Matters”
A Review of Hail, Caesar! by Nick Olszyk
MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, L
Reel Rating, Four reels
Any film of the Brothers Coen can be placed in two categories: zany comedies (Burn After Reading, A Serious Man) or intense dramas (Fargo, No Country for Old Men); in both cases, they feature sane protagonists who must try to live righteously in an increasingly insane world. Hail Ceasar! fits squarely in the former with an average joe who must babysit people far beneath him in the craziest playground of all: Hollywood. What starts slowly as a funny but unremarkable homage to the 50s studio system gradually builds into a surprisingly strong affirmation of traditional American values. At least, I think so. With the Coens, one can never be too sure.
Eddie Mannax’s (Josh Brolin) technical title is “Head of Physical Production” at Capitol Pictures, but colloquially he’s known as a “fixer,” someone who safeguards the image of the studio by helping crew members get along, keeping gossip out of the papers, and even arranging dates for their actors. His current problem involves the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), their biggest star, who had nearly finished his prime role in the Biblical epic Hail, Caesar. Also, Dee Anna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), another starlet and veteran of two failed marriages, is pregnant out of wedlock. Then there’s the cowboy who can’t act, the difficult director, the nagging reporter twins – it’s no surprise Eddie looks at his watch every five minutes. Through it all, Eddie tries to remain a decent human being. It hurts him that he’s home late every night to his loving family, and he frequently goes to confession. There is a tempting job offer on the table from Lockhead, a chance to go into a “serious” business with better pay an hours. “Film is on its way out anyway,” the recruiter scoffs. “Why waste your time covering for drunks?” Why indeed.
Hail, Caesar! may be a critic proof movie. Even those reviewers who fault its writing, acting, or sentiments will fall in love with Hollywood of old. This was a time when studio bosses controlled everything. In some ways, it was a drawback, and the Coens have a great deal of fun playing with absurdities of the system. To get Dee’s pregnancy out of the news, Eddie arranges for her to legally adopt her own child so the press will see it as an act of generosity. The studio even hires a “professional person” who is legally responsible for any ill action. The art direction is also spectacular with wired phones, giant 10K lights, muted colors, and even a full tap dance number.
Something of special delight for Catholics is the often overlook influence that “traditional morality” had on Hollywood during this time. Before Hail, Caesar premieres, Eddie meets with a panel including a Catholic priest, a rabbi, an Orthodox priest, and a Protestant pastor to make sure the film contains “nothing offensive.” What ensues is one of best exchanges of theological humor this year. The Coens don’t have disdain for religion, just a natural understanding that it can be difficult to grasp. There’s also a subplot involving a group of Communist screenwriters, who freely admit to planting subtle propaganda into their films yet are complete hypocrites. In the end, it’s up to a good ol’ country boy to risk his neck and save the day.
For the majority of its screen time, Caesar is a nice, unassuming comedy but in its final moments rises to great art. Eddie unleashes his frustration upon a pretentious actor, leaving the performer speechless. “This studio is worth something,” he growls. “And if you serve the studio, you’re worth something, too. Now, go out there and give the best performance of your life.” It’s the kind slap in the face that every 2016 presidential candidate needs, affirming the basic dignity of not only persons but their contributions to created world. As Eddie’s priest remarks, “God wants us to do what’s right,” even a Universe crazier than the movies.