Hail, Caesar! And The Celluloid CommunionPosted: February 8, 2016
On my Facebook page, I have my religion listed as “Film”. Because ultimately, film has been the biggest guiding light in my life, the art form that has not only led me to so many tremendous stories but that has comforted me when times have been most difficult. I think that film, at its best, can be the great Rosetta Stone for the times in which we live, and provide meaning and comfort just as well as the Church or the Talmud. I only bring all of this navel-gazing bullshit up because this seems to be exactly the mentality guiding the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! and while I may not unreservedly love the whole package I absolutely appreciate its dramatization of my feelings on film in a film.
The story, such as it is, follows two major figures on the studio backlot in the 1950s. The first is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of “Physical Production” for Capitol Pictures whose day mostly involves cleaning up messes made by the various stars and filmmakers under his watch. Among other things, he needs to legitimize the out-of-wedlock pregnancy of one star (Scarlett Johansson) and force another into a film he doesn’t belong (Alden Ehrenreich). All the while, Eddie is being courted by Lockheed to work for them, with the promise of more stable hours and “serious” work.
The other major thread follows superstar performer Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who is kidnapped from the set of the eponymous historical epic by a gang of disgruntled Communist screenwriters.The writers preach to him about the cynical motivations of the studios, and how the working artists are taken advantage of for the sake of profits. While Baird certainly doesn’t seem like a very deep person, he nevertheless becomes taken by the group’s political perspective, and their view of the film industry as a tool of capitalism instead of an art form.
Both of these threads involve antagonists challenging the main characters with the idea that this art they’ve committed themselves to is ultimately phony and profit-driven. Both Eddie and Baird are told that the movie business is essentially bullshit, and they are wasting their time with it. But while Baird somewhat succumbs to this cynical dismissal of the movies (albeit in an oblivious, off-handed fashion), Eddie cannot bring himself to look at movies this way. As difficult as his job may be, Eddie can’t help but love it and what it helps create, and that’s why he keeps doing it.
The Coens drive the significance of cinema home not just through Eddie’s arc but also in juxtaposing it with his Catholicism. We see him go to confession at the beginning and end of the film, and consult priests (and a rabbi) about the content of the film-within-a-film. But the priest in the confessional seems very uninterested and unconcerned with Eddie’s “sins” and the clergy consulting on the film can’t even arrive at a consensus on the nature of Christ. The trappings and representatives of the religion don’t live up to the spiritual promise of the religion itself… much as the industry that Eddie serves doesn’t live up to the art it creates.
This thematic juxtaposition, combined with the twin character arcs, makes for an interesting exploration of faith and why it matters to us. It establishes the idea that ultimately, our faith is driven by our self-worth. When there is a system larger than us– be it a religion, a political ideology or an industry– that offers us a chance to increase our self-worth by committing to a larger cause, how could we not embrace that opportunity? What makes Hail, Caesar! effective for me in particular is that for Eddie, the system he chooses is the movies, and that’s something I can really get behind.
The biggest knock against the film, and unfortunately a big roadblock for me, is the (lack of) structure. While the Baird storyline is the most thematically-relevant thread in the film, it barely takes up more screen time than the others, leaving the whole narrative very loosely-structured and somewhat meandering. While a lot of the other segments work very well in and of themselves, they do contribute to the distracted rhythm. For many people this is a criticism that can be easily dismissed, but for my structure-centric taste it’s the Kryptonite that undercuts the experience for me.
Hail, Caesar! is often an engaging and likable film that combines wonderful homages to classic Hollywood with a very relatable spiritual perspective. It is also a messy narrative that doesn’t always maintain its momentum. Hopefully on rewatching it I’ll enjoy what it does right and be less bothered by the structure; it would be a damn shame for something I can identify with this much fade away because of a nitpick.