The Good, Hard Work of “Hail, Caesar!”

Josh Brolin in the Coen Brothers’ “Hail Caesar!”

The Coen Brothers’ new movie, Hail, Caesar!, shows you the man behind the curtain at a Hollywood studio. 

Set during the 1950’s, the story involves Josh Brolin’s “Everyman”, Eddie Mannix, which is also a fortuitous alliteration. 

The first shot of the film shows Eddie deep in remorse, alone in a Confessional.  He has failed to quit smoking and has lied to his beloved wife about it — he smoked 3 cigarettes that day!  This is at once funny, as we hear the subtext of the Priest’s heavy sigh (“this fellow really needs to give himself a break”) – and yet, Brolin’s earnest crying is heart-wrenching.  One cannot help but love this Eddie, despite his, at times, stern hand (shown in the very next scene).  He is an honest, good man.  Which, by the way, is NOT a comment about the real, historical, Eddie Mannix.

Eddie is a studio head’s right-hand man, a “fixer”, and his task is to oil the gears of Capitol Studios (not so-subtly named).  Which is hard.  This devout Catholic, Eddie, sees that the workers within the studio contain the entire gamut of human “sin” – greed, homosexuality, pregnancy out of wedlock … communism….  And his main job is to make sure the studio itself, like a film, keeps up its illusion of glamour and purity.  He is The Director and Writer of the studio itself, for the gossip columnists and the public.   He is protective, wheeling and dealing to protect the employees, and never judging (“let him who is without sin…”), except when they are disloyal to the one True Cause – making movies.  In one scene, in his own modest “Father Knows Best” kitchen, he asks his wife for advice at choosing between his current job and an offer of an easier, higher-paying job.  His wife literally says, “you know best” – a TV-sitcom clue that Eddie is the metaphorical father to all of these misfits of Hollywood. 

Meanwhile, a competing capitalist industry of the 1950’s tempts Eddie to work for them.  And what do they produce, exactly? The Lockheed recruiter gleams and brags, “the H-bomb”. (“Armageddon,” notes our religious protagonist instantly.)   What about the ideological competition of the world — the Communists?  These are portrayed as coffee-house liberals living in luxury, talking about philosophy and economics, but not actually working at all.  (A bit of a cruel joke by the Coen Brothers…).  It seems the Coen Brothers see artists as trying to do something good, despite living in an irrational world.  Making art, is “the right thing” in Hail, Caesar!, similar in theme to the Italian’s current response to terrorism – giving youth money to spend on Art and Culture. 

Hollywood should not be completely flattered, however.   Could there possibly have been a message in the fact that actors seem so easily malleable, duped by the latest fad?  Or that the writers all seem to be bitter and smug?  Yet, this goes along with the Christian theme of “sin”.  No one is perfect (ok, except for maybe the real-life Lone Ranger, Hobie Doyle, played with boyish-charm perfection by Alden Ehrenreich).  These are fallible people.  But in scene after scene, all we see are people who are working, and working hard.  The work is palpable.  From the extras on the Roman set, hanging and literally suffering on the cross, waiting patiently all day for their lunch break, to the guys hauling plastic trees on and off the set, to the exasperated directors, to the lawyers, to the editors holed up smoking in their dark caves — this place is WORKING.  And with every pan over the mega-studio’s seemingly infinite number of warehouses/soundstages, one realizes that this is a factory as immense as anything the Lockheeds of the world can flaunt.  Hollywood, too, is a major industry, the Entertainment Industrial Complex shown in all its glory. 

Cinematically, Hail, Caesar! is just so much beautiful eye-candy, typical of the Coen Brothers.  Many scenes are homages to various genres — from spy thrillers with enemy submarines to film noir with a shady detective and femme fatale.  There are whole scenes dedicated to movies-within-the-movie, likely the most expensive and arduous scenes to produce, such as the over-the-top western, kaleidoscopic water dance, and the musical number (where the quite-talented Channing Tatum gets one of the bigger laughs of the film).  The Coen Brothers put their money — the film’s budget — where their mouth was — the theme that movies are freaking expensive and a lot of hard work, just for your pleasure, buddy! 

And what to make of the main movie-within-the-movie, Hail, Caesar!, a movie about Faith, which involves a cocky Roman, played by superstar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who meets Jesus and immediately feels compelled to kneel humbly before Him.  Filming the climactic scene, Baird actually moves everyone on the set; they pause briefly in a spiritual moment.  But — he forgets the last line (ironically the word “faith”), curses “Goddamit!”, and dispels the illusion instantly, and people continue their secular work without a beat.  Just as we do when the lights come up.

There is a scene with Eddie, sitting in a screening room watching a rough edit of the opening for Hail, Caesar!, and right after the opening title appears, we cut back to Eddie, watching the rough cut.   Eddie is the star.  Eddie is Caesar.  Eddie is not the studio head (who is the appropriately named fat-cat, Mr. Skank).  He’s just a guy who works his ass off and isn’t worth a whole lot of money himself.  He represents the real heroes of the movie industry.  And by the end of the film, we have just shared in a very sweet love letter, thanking all of the people who work so hard to make us movies — or any Art, really — in this chaotic, horrible world. 

Yes, Hail Caesar.

Copyright 2-6-16

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