REVIEW: Hail, Caesar!

8 02 2016

Hail CaesarThe kind of auteurism favored by most today places a high priority on repeated patterns and frameworks within a director’s body of work. I, however, tend to prefer filmmakers who can produce a consistency of mood, tone and experience without ever allowing themselves to be easily pinned down. There is perhaps no better example of this than Joel and Ethan Coen, the writing, directing and editing duo who can bounce across genres and budget sizes without skipping a beat.

Audiences most recognize the Coen Brothers for their trademark deadpan wit, with perhaps a little more emphasis on the “dead” part. They may well hold court as America’s greatest living ironists. In fact, their gifts in this realm are so well established that just seeing their names on a film imbues the proceedings with dramatic irony. Anyone who knows the Coens and their tendencies likely recognizes that the journey of the characters will not be determined by their own actions so much as it will be guided by their cosmic fate.

The brothers’ latest outing, “Hail, Caesar!,” bears many of their hallmarks. The dry humor begins with protagonist Edward Mannix (Josh Brolin) doing his best efforts at a confessional and scarcely lets up for an hour and 45 minutes. But underneath all the laughter, a very serious undercurrent of sacrifice, redemption and salvation runs resolutely. More than ever, the poker-faced Coen Brothers are tough to read. Mind you, these are the guys who got an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2000 for turning Homer’s “The Odyssey” into “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – and have claimed for 15 years now that they have not read the source text.

Where a gag ends and profundity begins provides the primary friction in “Hail, Caesar!” Their very interconnected nature seems to be the point of the film itself, and finding that point of intersection proves to be a joyous puzzle. It begins in each episodic scene as Mannix, studio head at Capitol Pictures, puts out fire after fire on the backlot for his pampered stars. This structure allows the Coens to dabble in the Golden Age of westerns, sword-and-sandals epics and musicals in both the Busby Berkley and Gene Kelly style. To call these a love letter to post-WWII Hollywood feels a little strong, but to declare it a satire or lampooning of the era’s excesses hardly feels appropriate either.

Josh Brolin and George Clooney in Hail Caesar

Perhaps the boundary between irony and sincerity does not hold nearly as firm as many Coen Brothers fans might believe. While “Hail, Caesar!” might have the more easygoing feel of their comedies like “Intolerable Cruelty” or “Burn After Reading,” the script packs just as much thematic heft as “Barton Fink” or “A Serious Man.” The Coens are as sharp as ever in their investigation of existential dilemmas surrounding their work and the world entire.

“Hail, Caesar!” is not just the name of the movie paying audiences see but also a film within the film, subtitled “A Tale of the Christ.” The Biblical flick serves as a real passion project for Mannix, who so desperately wants to get it right that he convenes a table of Jewish and Christian religious elders to approve his depiction of Jesus. Of course, all they want to talk about are the chariot races in the picture.

Michael Gambon’s sporadically appearing narrator describes Mannix’s industry as one that “manufactures stories.” He spends most of “Hail, Caesar!” trying to prove that dismissal incorrect. Mannix needs to believe that his line of work is about more than fixing problems for the studio’s golden geese. In order to get through the day, he has to convince himself that the movies can manufacture meaning. Each time he has to deal with a spoiled star, dim-witted dilettante or conspiring communist, Mannix’s persuasion that the godly can flow from the godless grows weaker.

Christ can be found in “Hail, Caesar!” – but, surprisingly, mostly in the narrative spun by the Coen Brothers. In many ways, Mannix functions as the Good Shepherd. He is not a representation or descendant of God, because this is still a Coens film, but he takes on an essential feature of Jesus in the form of self-sacrifice. Mannix consistently puts his reputation, credibility and security on the line to maintain the stability of his studio.

Is this a jab at the hollowness of religious salvation, a humanist revision or just a cinematic rendering? Are the Coens ironic or sincere in depicting a noble Christ on the backlot? Perhaps all. Perhaps none. Most likely, some combination of each. Determining what composition makes up “Hail, Caesar!” would probably make for a task as futile as unlocking the secret formula for Coca-Cola. But I will keep imbibing – and guessing. A-3halfstars

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One response

9 02 2016
Dan O.

Was slightly disappointed with this. However, will still admit that it was quite fun. Nice review Marshall.

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