The Coen Project Part 17: Hail Caesar!

I am normally chill about trailers. Some of my friends go out of their way to avoid seeing them, but I assume that their effect on my viewing experience will be negligible. This assumption was proven faulty when I saw the Coens’ seventeenth feature, Hail Caesar!

Based on my multiple viewings of the trailer on youtube, I expected a heavily plotted noir-comedy centered on the kidnapping of George Clooney’s movie star character. When the film I was looking forward to did not materialize on screen, my lizard brain deduced that Hail Caesar! was just an unfocused mess. I loved all of the scenes, but I was confused as to what they were supposed to coalesce into.

Re-watching the film two years later after I had forgotten why it disappointed me was an entirely different experience. The synopsis listed on Amazon video gave me a more accurate sense of the film’s intent than the trailer had: “Hail Caesar! follows a day in the life of a studio fixer”.

And as a day in the life of a studio fixer, it works fantastically. All other plot threads are ancillary to Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) and the decision that he has to make by the end of the day: whether or not to leave his job at Capitol Pictures for a cushier gig at an Lockheed.

Knowing what the film wasn’t left me free to enjoy the scenes featuring the actors under Mannix’s purview without expecting them to be propulsive plot points. These vignettes are so disconnected from each other that they could be reworked as short films; they’re also arguably the most fun comedic pieces the Coens have done.

The standout set of scenes features Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a specialist in corny westerns who has been transplanted onto the set of a romantic comedy helmed by auteur director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). Things do not go well for Hobie, who hasn’t spoken many lines of dialogue in his career beyond “Whoah there”.

Hail Caesar’s production history dates back to 1999, when Joel and Ethan pitched George Clooney a “thought experiment” in which he would play an idiot 1920’s matinee idol — an opportunity to complete the “Numbskull Trilogy” that he began with O Brother Where Art Thou and Burn After Reading.

The project remained a thought experiment for over a decade. According to Joel: “Hail Caesar! is a movie that George Clooney keeps announcing to the press every couple of years, and it doesn’t even exist as a script; it’s only an idea.” By 2013 the Coens finally conceded that there was a “good chance” that Hail Caesar! would follow Inside Llewyn Davis as their seventeenth release.

Depicting the Golden Age studio system at the height of its post-war machinery, Hail Caesar! is the Coens’ most fully realized period piece, filmed with vintage techniques and richly textured production design at a where’s-where of classic Los Angeles locations. But these are the Coens, so it’s no doe-eyed “love letter”: the fakery of Hollywood’s most outwardly glamorous era is lambasted in every scene.

The film industry takedown is what most critics focused on. But Hail Caesar! goes one step further, replacing the facade with something more meaningful. Returning to a broader theme of narrative explored in O Brother Where Art Though,  Hail Caesar!  is a celebration the human duty of storytelling and the sacrifices that it demands.

Religion as a motif is present from the opening shots. We see a crucifix followed by Eddie Mannix in confession, boring the priest with some very minor sins. Later, Mannix holds a meeting with representatives of four religious traditions to get their opinion on the script of Capitol Picture’s tentpole release, Hail Caesar: A Story of the Christ. This devolves into a heated but pointless theological debate. (Highlight: “God’s a bachelor, and he’s very angry.”)

But unlike the theological exploration that is A Serious Man, Hail Caesar! has little of importance to say about the actual God. It’s really about another religion, the one that people of every creed partake in: cinema.

Baird Whitlock is Capitol’s biggest movie star. Played by George Clooney in his idiot wheelhouse, Whitlock’s time on the set of Hail Caesar! is cut short when he is roofied by an extra and transported to a house in Malibu. He awakes to find himself in the hands of a “study group” of communist screenwriters, who he promptly befriends, insisting that he too is on the side of “the little guy”. The only problem is that they’re holding him for ransom. 

When Whitlock is finally delivered from his captors and expresses a desire to quit acting to pursue Communism, he receives a strong dressing down from Mannix:

“You’re gonna do it because you’re an actor and that’s what you do, just like the director does and the writer and the script girl and the guy who claps the slate. You’re gonna do it because the picture has worth, and you have worth if you serve the picture and you’re never gonna forget that again”

Baird’s sin isn’t being a casual revolutionary Marxist — it’s putting his own whims over the film that he’s supposed to be serving. His movie-star status counts for nothing if he fails to contribute to the story. Well told, the story is the ultimate good.

Mannix is a Christ figure, shouldering the sins of the actors he supervises to protect the films they appear in. Mannix receives none of the glory or wealth of his actor counterparts, but sacrifices the comforts of a normal life to the altar of storytelling.

Like Christ, Mannix is tempted by the Devil: the head-hunter from Lockheed who attempts to draw him away from his job by arguing that it isn’t important:

“I don’t mean to denigrate; I’m sure the picture business is pretty damned interesting. But it’s also pretty frivolous, isn’t it?”

Mannix knows that the frivolity is just on the surface. As I got into more specifically in my notes on O Brother Where Art Thou, storytelling is pretty crucial to our ability to function as human beings. And while we think of film and television as a form of entertainment, the moving image is the dominant form of storytelling culture in our time. On that level, it’s hard to understate how important the job of making movies is. Even the guy who claps the slate is serving humanity.

Stray Observations:

  • Best Tilda Swinton Quote: “Don’t play dumb Eddie, I’m talking about *dramatic pause* ON WINGS AS ANGELS”
  • Best Scarlett Johannsen quote, after Mannix referred to her ex-husband as a minor mob figure: “Vince was NOT minor”.
  • I’m gonna dog on La La Land again. Hail Caesar! is both a better movie about Los Angeles and a better movie about the movies. La La Land frames the film industry in the exact opposite way that Hail Caesar! does: as a granter or denier of ego-driven personal dreams, rather than a collective effort to make stories for the world.

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