Overview: A Hollywood fixer spends a day putting out various fires on the studio lot where he works, the most pressing being the disappearance of a major star. Universal Pictures; 2016; Rated PG-13; 100 minutes.
Pretend-politik: You’ve got realpolitik, and you’ve got pretend-politik. The second one is what they do in Hollywood.
The popular negative take on show-business is rooted in its fabrication. The movies are fake, the people are fake, and their problems are fake; all of it is manufactured for our entertainment, and it is not under any circumstances to be taken seriously. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is told this bluntly by a Lockheed Martin representative who hopes to poach him. Hollywood is a lie, he says, and it’s a fool’s errand to pretend that it has any real worth. Mannix himself has – or, at least, pretends to have – an inflated view of his industry’s significance. Early on, he addresses a group of religious leaders to get their takes on the eponymous film-within-a-film, which will tell the story of Jesus through the eyes of a Roman captain. Movies have such an impact on the public, he claims, that Hail, Caesar! will become the most popular version of the story of the crucifixion. “What about the Bible?” asks one of the priests.
It’s…Complicated: But you would be wrong to think of Hail, Caesar! as a smug takedown of self-important Hollywood types. If anything, it’s a defense of that self-importance. This is the latest in a long line of films by Joel and Ethan Coen about the folly of ideology in a harshly moralistic world. All of their films are, in one way or another, about people trying and failing to impose self-serving dogmas on a universe with its own set of rules. Whether it be the complexities of mob relationships (Miller’s Crossing), the recklessness of greed (Fargo), or the absurdity of religion (A Serious Man), the Coens have always poked fun at the frameworks which humans erect to try and control their world. Hail, Caesar! is unique in that the politics of Hollywood are elevated rather than denigrated. Every system of organized belief is revealed to be kind of silly, from communism to Catholicism. By comparison, maybe showbiz drama isn’t so worthless after all.
Cast of Thousands: If this seems a bit headier than the ensemble comedy romp promised by the film’s trailers, well, it is. Despite being labeled “minor Coens” in some circles, this is undoubtedly one of their densest films. That’s not to say that Hail, Caesar! isn’t two of those three descriptors. The less-than-accurate one is “ensemble.” The trailers sell an entirely false narrative, one where every character has a part to play in the central story of Baird Whitlock’s (George Clooney) kidnapping. In actuality, this is Mannix’s show, and most characters appear only in individual extended vignettes. On a strange meta level, this plays into the film’s take on the contradicting politics of idolatry leadership and idealized community. (In the film-within-a-film, Jesus is played by an extra and is rarely shown on-screen.) That’s not to say that any of these actors are wasted, however. Each and every one of them is given a character that plays to their strengths as performers. Channing Tatum plays Burt Gurney, a Gene Kelly-esque song-and-dance man, and he’s given an elaborate musical number. Tilda Swinton plays identical twin sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker, a pair of competitive film journalists who always swoop into Mannix’s path in quick succession. Ralph Fiennes is Laurence Laurentz, a mannered British director making mannered British dramas who has trouble keeping his temper in check. The standout is Alden Ehrenreich’s Hobie Doyle, a good-natured cowboy actor who finds it hard to keep up with the manic pace of his line of work, and even harder to deliver a line. He’s Hail, Caesar!’s Marge Gunderson, the one guy capable of putting right and wrong before his personal beliefs. But at the end of the day, that alone won’t help him succeed or fail. The planet spins regardless of our petty goings-on. And since that’s the case, Hail, Caesar! says, getting caught up in fabricated entertainment isn’t such a bad thing after all.
Wrap-Up: Hail, Caesar! is the ultimate Coen Brothers film – a profound, dense, hilarious, and absurdist take on ideology and faith.