The Greatest Puzzle Never Solved: A Review of the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!

hail caesar review

The most common criticism leveled against Hail, Caesar! is that this existential Hollywood comedy by Joel and Ethan Coen is a movie that doesn’t quite come together. The Coens get this kind of criticism all the time, including the first time they decided to set one of their movies in Hollywood. Winner of the Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Barton Finkstill one of their best movies- turned what started as a fairly realistic story of a playwright-turned-screenwriter into a darkly surreal comedy, and later, into an outright nightmare. Perhaps the people who were put off by Fink’s dreamlike descent into hell are the same people who can’t find thematic cohesion beyond Caesar’s seemingly incoherent detours.

The more movies the Coens make, the clearer it becomes that they are deeply interested in cosmology. Over and over again, they ask the same question: is there any rhyme or reason to this world? The characters at the center of these movies rarely find a satisfying answer to this question, but the brothers -and their fans- always come back for more. Perhaps because, much like a Coen protagonist, we are all trying to find the right way to live.

These repeatedly unanswered quests can seem like a sick joke. The Coens are so precise and exacting in the details of their filmmaking, that their movies often feel like perfectly crafted puzzles that for some bizarre reason, cannot be solved. In fact, Hail, Caesar! features this very same metaphor in a scene where two writers are about to finish a puzzle only to discover that the last piece, inexplicably, doesn’t fit. How could it not fit, if it’s the only piece left? Just when you think you’ve understood everything there is to understand, an even bigger question appears.

The man searching answers this time around is played by Josh Brolin, and his name is Eddie Mannix, the chief of “physical production” at the fictional Capitol Pictures. The character is based on a real man of the same name, who by most accounts was a ruthless fixer who worked for MGM and would do anything in his power to keep the studio and its stars’ images clean. Unlike the real-life Mannix, Brolin’s character is a deeply religious man with a moral dilemma. Eddie loves his job, and he loves the movies, but how do frivolous entertainments fit into the world’s cosmology?

Perhaps Eddie can find some moral appeasement in Capitol Pictures’s biggest production: “Hail, Caesar!”, a Biblical epic about a Roman soldier who turns his life around after encountering Jesus Christ. This movie seems to be Eddie’s way of making it right by the Almighty. He is so concerned with the respectability of his movie that he assembles a panel of religious leaders and asks them to find any moral objections to the movie’s depiction of God and Jesus. A priest, a pastor, and a rabbi all walk into the room, but no one is as concerned with doing God justice as Eddie.

That Eddie finds time to go to confession and consider the moral implications of his own life is impressive considering the amount of actors, directors, and gossip columnists he has to deal with on a daily basis. If that weren’t enough, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), Capitol’s biggest star and the protagonist of “Hail, Caesar”, is nowhere to be found. Turns out he’s been kidnapped by a group of communist writers that call themselves The Future. The clueless Whitlock bumbles into a room full of communists and is quickly mesmerized by their rhetoric. He too is “for the common man”. What are these communist after? Money, of course.

One would surely describe this as a particularly challenging day in Eddie’s career, but as far as dealing with kidnapped celebrities is concerned, Mannix is on top of his game. Everything that has to do with keeping the studio afloat, he can handle in his sleep. It’s the moral implications of being part of such a frivolous and seemingly decadent industry that haunt him. The stakes of Hail, Caesar! do not revolve around rescuing Whitlock and keeping the Studio afloat, but around Eddie’s salvation. Midway through the film he is offered a job at Lockheed Martin, a “real” job, he is assured. A job that matters.

Behind the bells and whistles of a comedy that finds ample time to let the audience glimpse Capitol Pictures’s many productions -including westerns, melodramas, and musicals- lies a very personal movie. Eddie Mannix’s search to find value in his life can be interpreted as a representation of the Coens’ own struggles with their art. After mocking all ideologies, particularly communism and religion, the Coens find salvation in the frivolous pleasures of the movies. Film critic David Ehrlich is right on the money when he compares Hail, Caesar! to The Grand Budapest HotelBoth movies argue for art’s value, but where Budapest is madcap and propulsive, Caesar is eerie and disconcerting.

The most effective way in which Hail, Caesar! argues for the movies are its own superficial pleasures. What we see of the movies being produced at Capitol Pictures isn’t very profound -and often dumb and ridiculous- but it’s also incredibly enjoyable. The most impressive of these moments is a song-and-dance sequence featuring Channing Tatum in a sailor uniform that could be described as overlong and self-indulgent if it weren’t so delightful. Tatum, once again, proves that he is this generation’s closest equivalent to Gene Kelly; and the Coens, that they understand that movies are, above all, entertainment.

The magic of the movies is on full display in Hail, Caesar! I was particularly impressed by how the amount of showmanship to the performances, and the role of physicality in impressing the audience. One forgets about the possibility that some of the feats in the movie could’ve been achieved with the help of computers because watching Tatum tap-dance is as transfixing as a live circus act. It’s also impressive when simpleton cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich in the movie’s standout performance) does lasso tricks with spaghetti, and when sexy Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio) demonstrates the trick to dancing with “so much fruit on her head”.

If there are any weaknesses to Hail, Caesar!, they probably have to do with its rather abrupt ending and the often bizarre rhythms of its pacing. At the same time, the bizarre nature of the movie could mean that those qualities are perfectly intentional. The movie is packed with characters, stories, detours, and plot developments that, at first glance, have little to do with each other. Upon further inspection, they might still not make sense. Like most of the Coens’ movies, not all the pieces might fit in this puzzle. But by the time Eddie Mannix finds value in the trivial product he helps produce, the audience has found value in the movie’s own superficial pleasures.

Grade: 9 out of 10

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