Hail, Caesar!, the new Coen brothers comedy, is fun, fast, and pickled in seemingly irreconcilable contradictions: the divine hypostastic union, the antagonisms of impoverished screenwriters in the Hegelian synthesis that is the engine of History, the homosexuality of heterosexuals in the Navy, how a movie megastar can legally adopt her own naturally born child.
You know, stuff like that.
It’s 1951 and Capitol Pictures is in the midst of bringing Hail, Caesar! to the Big Screen: a Ben Hur–like epic that stars Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) as a Roman centurion who comes to faith in “the Christ” by a mere chance encounter. But things go awry when its star is kidnapped and ransomed for $100,000.
And that’s not the craziest thing on the studio lot. Imagine Roy Rogers, or Will Rogers, or, heck, Mr. Rogers cast in a high-society drama (or worse: think Gary Cooper in a Noël Coward comedy), and you have some idea of what effete director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) has to work with when a singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) is dropped into a tux to speak lines he can neither pronounce nor understand. But these were the days when actors were pretty much owned by studios: they did what they were told and acted on whatever set they were driven to. I am Spartacus indeed.
As if that weren’t enough, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), a Busby Berkeley type, is pregnant, yes pregnant, and she’s already cast off two husbands and is in no mood for a third. What if this makes the papers?!
Enter Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). He’s head of “physical production” at Capitol Studios, which is to say he keeps everything moving and executives happy and the stars out of the gossip columns, at least for the wrong reasons. He makes sure no one on the “outside” knows which A-lister is “drying out” at a clinic somewhere, or what starlet has had compromising photos taken in compromising positions, or whose marriage is a sham because he, well, likes to dance in musical numbers called “No Dames.” In short, Mannix is the keeper of 1950s public morality, in service to his studio bosses and the Hays office, which ensures that, for entertainment purposes at least, there is only one sexual orientation and two sexes, and they never have sex unless legally married—and then only in separate beds.
And who better than Eddie to perform this thankless task? A devout son of the Catholic Church, he’s also determined to ensure that Hail, Caesar! is a faithful and uncontroversial depiction of the Christ, to the extent that the ginger-haired actor playing Christ even appears on-screen. Toward that end, Mannix gathers together a Catholic priest, an Orthodox patriarch, a Protestant minister, and a rabbi to share their thoughts on whether the film is both fair and inoffensive to any “reasonable person.” And thus begins a roundtable debate about the two natures of the man-God that is hilarious, inconclusive, and, dare I say it, relatively inoffensive, at least to reasonable people, especially if one remembers that discussions very much like it took place sometime around the fourth century and could end in violence.
But what of our star? Whitlock, it turns out, has been kidnapped by a communist cell composed of disgruntled screenwriters sick of Capitol (get it?) Studios’ taking the lion’s share of the profits just because it owns the means of production. Hiding out in a luxurious home that could have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, these mutant Marxists manage to convince the actor he is part of one great con of the little guy. By taking “direct action” and infusing the great dream machine with communist messages (“sub rosa,” of course), these contract propagandists hope to shift History into overdrive. (The set on which these scenes take place evoked, for me at least, one featured in The Big Knife, another “Hollywood Unmasked” flick based on a play by Clifford Odets, whose fashionable socialist agenda in a world of “wrasslin’ pictures” was played up for terror and giggles in the Coens’ Barton Fink. Worlds within worlds, my friends.)
And don’t you know it, with Burns and Allen timing, who should stick their identical noses into this mess but Thora and Thessaly Thacker, twin gossip columnists channeling Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, and both played by Academy Award–winning actress Tilda Swinton. Thora (or is it Thessaly?) is about to break the story of her career, a scandal involving the witless Whitlock and, we’re left to guess, the “love that dare not speak its name”—or at least it dare not back in the days of the League of Decency.
Secrets, secrets, everyone in Hollywood has secrets! Whether communist affiliations, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, strange back-shaving episodes with Danny Kaye (oops, spoiler alert!)—so much to hide in plain sight. Just as Mannix has a father confessor to whom he bemoans his puny sins, which are faithfully absolved, covered by the blood of the savior, Hollywood has its fixer, the man who faithfully covers up all manner of immorality by lying, deceiving, and just plain making believe nothing ever happened to no one, lest he rat you out for a commie and get you hauled before HUAC to name some other kinds of names.
But can even über-conscientious Eddie Mannix save Capitol by retrieving its now Red-tarnished Whitlock in time to shoot Hail, Caesar!’s grand finale: the show-stopping, come-to-Jesus speech at the foot of the Cross that is intended to inspire faith in its enraptured audience, assuming Whitlock is a good enough actor to fake-believe?
Oh, the glory days of Hollywood!
There’s not much of what you or Aristotle would call a plot in this gloriously cinematographed romp, but who cares? Who needs wrasslin’ pictures when capitalism and communism, those pro- and an- tagonists, are locked in mortal combat—and in Technicolor! Ralph Fiennes as director Laurentz, struggling to retain his upper-crust composure as he trains a rope-tricking rodeo clown to speak a rarefied English, almost steals the film (and put me in mind of Tim Curry’s elocutionist in the undeservedly excoriated Sylvester Stallone gangster farce Oscar). Scarlett Johansson has little to do as the preggers blonde bombshell stuck in a rubber mermaid butt, but is very funny when she’s around. Clooney looks like he’s having a blast sending up his own self-important liberal-activist image.
But the biggest surprise is perhaps the character of Eddie Mannix. As written, and as played by the superb Josh Brolin, Mannix—based on a real-life guy but with bigger sins to sigh over—is no cartoon in his devotion to faith, family, and, most important, studio. Mannix prays for wisdom as to whether he should take a lucrative offer from Lockheed, one that would secure his financial future but tear him away from what he slowly realizes is his true vocation: saving the celebrated from themselves and maintaining the illusions of glamorous grandeur that Americans crave.
“People don’t want facts,” Mannix informs gossip columnist Thora. “They want to believe.” It doesn’t matter, in the Coens’ construal, whether it’s in the Christ or in communism, whether in slave revolts or messianic movements: the masses want to believe that a new world is dawning, that a new man is in the making. And what better medium for keeping hope alive than the Big Screen?
The Coens are no doubt poking fun at both faith as faith, a kind of rube gullibility, and religion as a form of entertainment. One question that comes up in the clerics’ debate is whether you can “faithfully” depict a member of the Godhead without breaking a key Commandment. Isn’t such an attempt as absurd as, at least in the eyes of the rabbi, God begetting a son? (“What, does he have a dog, too?”) Certainly Christian iconoclasts down the centuries have asked at least one of these questions. And sure, one can grow a little weary of the Coens’ trademark arch postures and ironic stances, because let’s face it: once upon a time we believed that movie stars were but stand-ins for their heroic, larger-than-life, all-American selves. Now we’re sure they’re just like us, only much worse: a bunch of amoral, PC hypocrites who take pride in denouncing the very system that has made them the privileged brats that they are. I think we know which is closer to the truth, ahem, but is that necessarily better for our pop culture? Can’t we have our myth and our integrity too? Can’t we believe without being rubes?
It all depends on which god you worship, I suppose. And that’s really what the Coens’ bad and beautiful Hollywood flicker is all about. Faith in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man could be sustained only by the greatest opiate of all: the movies. And now they’ve gone apostate. What’s left to believe in?
It’s as if the kingdom of God were just another Hollywood ending. But with undoubtedly better effects.
Anthony Sacramone is managing editor of ISI Books, Modern Age, and the Intercollegiate Review.
Image by Craig Duffy via Flickr.