The religious who live outside the film industry tend to think of Hollywood as a bastion of secular materialism. In their view, directors and starlets throw lavish parties and cruise down Rodeo Drive in search of the next designer purse. Certainly Hollywood has its share of hedonism. However, it is also a deeply spiritual place. Art is an exploration of the immaterial, the nature of truth and beauty. Nowhere is this coexisting paradox of spirituality and materialism so eloquently put as the Coen brothers’ latest film, Hail Caesar!
Set in 1950s Hollywood, the story pits Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Catholic studio fixer, against the hurly-burly of Westerns and musicals, closeted communists and hidden affairs. Mannix must fix a studio lot of problems—including the mysterious kidnapping of Baird Whitlock, the star of the latest Bible epic—before the gossip columnists find out.
Mannix proves a complex character, in great part because of his faith. We first see him confessing to a priest that he lies to his wife about his smoking habit. On one hand, this is an act of hypocrisy, considering all the violence and deceit that Mannix will perform throughout the next 24 hours. However, Mannix always takes his beliefs seriously—whether ecclesiastical or material. In one scene, he slaps an actor who disparages films as “frivolous” before sending him out to make more movies. To Mannix’s view, neither film nor religion is frivolous—both matter because both touch the human soul.
If O Brother, Where Art Thou? placed a Depression-era spin on The Odyssey, Hail Caesar gives an American take to Dante’s Inferno. A good portion of the film’s second act pokes fun at the foibles of every popular film genre of the 1950s. Each film in production seems more ludicrous than the last, the hapless actors and auteur directors doomed to strive for masterpieces but churn out movies of the week. You can practically see this realization creeping across director Laurence Laurentz’s face as he tries to coach Western actor Hobie Doyle in proper diction. Everyone on the studio lot seeks immortality through the silver screen, to find an Aeneas who will guide them out of this hell, but few achieve the dream.
Communism forms the comic center of this hell, a lurking menace that somehow seems more ridiculous than threatening. In the Coen brothers’ making, communism stands for sheer materialism, the belief that the studio system profits off of luckless cast and crewmembers in the higher circles. The communists are at least partially right, but in the end, their beliefs are (literally) confined to the depths. The communists’ materialism seems absurd because they overlook the transcendent nature of art, a nature which Mannix never forgets.
However, without an understanding of film history and Cold War America, Hail Caesar can seem oddly out of context. From the foul-mouthed aquatic film star who has a baby on the way to the grossly oversimplified communism of a cadre of screenwriters, the Coen brothers’ characters seem like bizarre caricatures. However, the element of truth that these characters exhibit is what makes the comedy so hilarious. The theater I attended aired 30 minutes of 1950s film trailers and musical numbers before the show began. The Coen brothers captured the razzle-dazzle and heavy-handed reverence of all these films. If Caesar ever lags, it is because the film parodies are making light of the plodding nature of many 1950s genre flicks.
Like most Coen brothers films, Hail Caesar gives few answers. Neither communism nor faith, musicals nor dramas, infidelity nor homosexuality escape their satire. In one scene, a cheery Mannix meets with four religious leaders to get their take on the studio’s upcoming Bible epic. The men discuss irrelevant portions of the script, while the Jewish rabbi steals the scene with his scorn for the Christians. “These men are screwballs,” he intones. (To be honest, I couldn’t help but wonder if the meeting went the same way as when Ridley Scott or Darren Aronofsky consulted Christians about their recent Bible films.)
What the film does do is give viewers a sometimes dark, always madcap ride through the circles of studio Hollywood. In the end, I think, the Coen brothers show why we keep returning to the movies, and why filmmakers keep creating them. Certainly we go for the escape and the laughter. In the end, though, we participate in art because we want to be creators of a little-c sort. We want to explore truth and beauty.