In Hail, Caesar!, the new Coen brothers movie, a key plot point involves a ‘study group,’ a cabal of communist screenwriters, intent on indoctrinating Americans with Marxist ideas. “We think we’re really making a difference,” one of them says cheerily. When I learned that one of them was supposed to be Herbert Marcuse, I laughed out loud. The extended joke that the ‘study group’ represent never loses its appeal, which is a little strange. Their dialogue isn’t overtly funny, nor do the actors play broadly, for laughs. They are, nonetheless hilarious, simply because the premise is so delicious.
During the worst years of the McCarthyite Red Scare, that was the fantasy that the commie hunters pursued so grimly; a cabal of communist screenwriters. That’s why Dalton Trumbo and John Howard Lawson and Ring Lardner Jr. and all the rest of them were blacklisted; because dolts like Bill Wilkerson (of the Hollywood Reporter) or Joe McCarthy took that fantasy seriously. Of course, the blacklist destroyed careers and lives and was a serious and awful thing. But instead of outrage, the Coens employ ridicule. They take this ridiculous suspicion to its comic extreme. It would be as if–what’s a good analogy?–a sci-fi movie were to take seriously, for comedic effect, the notion that the earth is flat.
Hail, Caesar! is, at its heart, a spoof of ’50s Hollywood. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, head of ‘physical production’ at Capitol Pictures (the same fictional studio the Coens referenced in Barton Fink). Essentially, Eddie is a fixer. His job is the construction of false narratives–not the stories of movies, but the increasingly desperate spinning-out of stories of the normal family lives supposedly lived by movie stars, white-washing their rowdier escapades, which no one must ever know about. And gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by Tilda Swinton), are constantly on the prowl, sniffing out which actors are gay, which are pregnant, who’s been drinking again. (They get it all wrong, and completely miss the real blockbuster, which I won’t spoil for you. But it involves Channing Tatum. And it’s not what you think).
Eddie’s biggest challenge is the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), off the set of ‘Hail Caesar: A Story of the Christ,’ a sword-and-sandals religious epic about a Roman prefect converted to Christianity. By Saul of Tarsus, no less. Baird’s kidnappers are the commie screenwriters ‘study group,’ and they’re trying to convert him too, to communism. And Baird’s dumb enough that it seems, sort of, to be working.
Those two conversions, of Baird to communism, and of Baird’s fictional Roman to Christianity, provide the fulcrum on which the film turns. It’s a film about conversion, about beloved cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), converting to a suave, Cary Grantish star of sophisticated Philadelphia Story-type romantic comedies. Above all, it’s about Eddie himself, trying to decide whether to stay in the movie business, or accept a safer, more lucrative but (we suspect), boring job with Lockheed. And that is a moral decision, we see, as Eddie agonizes over it with his priest, in the confessional. Eddie wants to do good in the world. Movies or airplanes.
It’s not just a film about conversion; it’s a film about Christianity, about religion itself. In one of the funnier scenes in the movie, Eddie assembles three Christian clergy and a rabbi, asks that they peruse the Hail, Caesar screenplay, and tell him what they think. That meeting quickly deteriorates into a theological argument over the nature of the trinitarian Godhead.
And that’s when we realize how spectacularly comical theological disputes can be, whether between Christian clergymen or Marxist theorists. Anyone who thinks he has Ultimate Answers is ultimately destined to play the fool. And that’s the appeal of Hollywood. Hobie Doyle may be a pretend cowboy in ridiculous oaters, but he’s also an extraordinary trick rider, a rope spinning whiz, an athlete. I may not immediately understand the appeal of those Esther Williams water ballet movies that DeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) stars in, but her ability to swim underwater is quite extraordinary. And while we’re giggling over just how amazingly gay the tap-dancing sailors led by Burt Gurney (a remarkable Channing Tatum) look to our jaded eyes, they really are terrific dancers.
It’s even a film with a virgin birth, sort of. It’s a film about two subjects–Christianity and the movie industry. DeAnna is pregnant (bad), typical of the problems Eddie has to solve. She’s pretty sure she knows who the father is, but it turns out he’s married. So Eddie works with the fixer’s fixer, Joseph Silverman (Jonah Hill), a professional ‘person,’ a man who, by injecting himself into any situation, can make anything happen. The idea is that she’ll ‘adopt’ her own baby. She’ll remove the child’s father from the equation. Virgin birth.
There’s also a God, a distant voice, a long way off, who communicates with His people through a prophet. Eddie’s the prophet, and God is ‘Mr. Schenck,’ the studio head, in New York. (Some particularly smart critics have suggested that Eddie’s actually a symbol for Christ, but I don’t think so. He doesn’t take on anyone’s sins–just spins them for the press. I’m Mormon–he’s a prophet. Either way, though, the film doesn’t really mock him him or his role.
That’s the topsy-turvy moral universe of Hail, Caesar. It’s a film where the most fakey, Hollywood-y, ridiculous scene is, supposedly, ‘real,’ where Baird Whitlock is a moron when talking Marxism, but re-finds his dignity as an actor and movie star. It’s a movie where a deeply powerful exposition of the central Christian doctrines, the incarnation and the atonement, find expression, and then founder on the word ‘faith,’ because Baird goes up on his lines. And swears in frustration.
It’s a film in which a good man, working in a corrupt profession, contemplates the nature of goodness itself. And finds his answer in that profession, in the professionalism and craftsmanship of artists, even artists working on the silliest projects, in a ridiculous industry. It honors that ridiculousness, and places that craftsmanship as higher on the moral scale than theology or politics.
It’s a delicious confection. It’s also a profound examination of questions of faith, theology and Christianity. I loved it. But it’s a film of some thought and some delicacy, not just a parody or farce. After you’ve seen it, I’d love to hear from you.