The Coen brothers have long since been fascinated by discussions of God within the confines of cinema and now they’ve gone and taken that mission in a newly literal direction, creating a comic riff on the oft-criticized screenwriter’s cheat deus ex machina. Joel and Ethan’s latest, Hail, Caesar!, is all about God and the (Hollywood) Machine. The movie is piled high with religious conversations as filtered through the nostalgic lens of 50s studio moviemaking. And it’s all very much about God’s role in the process and what that role means to different people.
This is the story of fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who runs the studio’s daily ground operations by keeping the stars happy, the gossip columnists at bay, and the various productions on schedule. Eddie is a good Catholic man who frequents the confession booth to fess up about things like sneaking a cigarette even though he told his wife he’d quit. He’s hardly going to Hell for it, but he clearly requires a clean conscience.
Eddie is also busy overseeing the studio’s largest production of the year, the movie that gives this movie its title, a biblical epic starring the ethically wayward superstar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Poor Eddie is so committed to ensuring the picture is religiously sensitive that he gathers up a handful of local religious leaders to get their opinions on the movie’s treatment of Christ. For all his good intentions, Eddie watches the conversation devolve into a bickering battle about Christ’s role in Christian and Jewish faiths. He walks away from the discussion with the knowledge that Hail, Caesar!’s use of Jesus could be worse.
It’s hardly a glowing seal of approval, but it’ll have to do. The whole scene is quite funny, but more than that, it’s a key bit of development for our beleaguered hero. Eddie is actually really great at his job, so while it’s indeed a demanding occupation, Eddie’s internal struggle is self-inflicted. He takes on a lot of responsibility because he feels he has to and he’s hard on himself because, dammit, the movies deserve it!
This makes Eddie something of a kindred spirit to Michael Stuhlbarg’s titular character in the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man. Both are average good guys navigating morally messy territory while forever trying to do the right thing and not anger God. The Coens often tell stories about unlikable people, even bad people, and in those cases, they worry little about getting the audience to cheer for their protagonists. They probably don’t expect us to cheer for Eddie, either, but it’s clear that he’s a specific type of Coen creation that is defined by a sort of God-fearing goodness.
Eddie wants to do right by everyone as long as everyone respects and supports the movies. It's a great trait to saddle Eddie with because Hail, Caesar! often seems conflicted about whether it's an ode to the meaningful artistry of cinema or a critique of movies as capitalist product. The Coen brothers want to explore both options, so they include a marvellously zany subplot involving Baird being kidnapped by communist screenwriters who feel they're owed much by Hollywood.
The ideas flow liberally and cleverly here, all knotted up in a dazzling parade of golden age homages, like a beautiful synchronized swimming musical sequence involving Scarlett Johansson's character as a centrepiece mermaid and a riotous group dance number loaded with gleeful gee-golly homoeroticism and fronted by a sailor-suited Channing Tatum.
Of course, the biggest and most important of the movie-within-the-movie inventions is the titular one, where the Coens hang so many of their gags and observations. On the surface, it's a lavishly modern behind-the-scenes look at retro epic moviemaking that conjures memories of Spartacus and Ben-Hur. But beyond such comparisons lies that delightful Coen humour.
One particularly inspired scene sees a worker patrolling the Hail, Caesar! set trying to figure out who gets which breakfast. He approaches the actor playing a crucified Jesus and asks if he’s a principal or an extra. It’s a moment of poignant hilarity that succinctly sums up the smart silliness the Coens are dabbling in. Of course, Jesus says he’s a principal with an added “I think?” At least he’ll get a better breakfast than some while dying for their sins.
All this wackiness is juxtaposed against Eddie's serious commitment to movies and the making of them. He has a cushy job offer from Lockheed to mull over for much of the movie, but it seems what's holding him back from making a decision is the Lockheed recruiter's dismissal of cinema as disposable fluff.
Yes, Hail, Caesar! is as much a staunch tribute to the magic of movies as it is a farcical teardown of the industry. And all under the eyes of God. In true Coen brothers fashion, their ultimate aim isn't always clear, since here they're riffing so often it's easy to just shrug it all off as goofy nonsense, fitting the way certain characters in the movie view movies overall.
But in the larger picture of the Coen corpus, Hail, Caesar! feels full of fresh ruminations on the brothers' favourite themes. It's another fascinating piece of the puzzle, a vibrantly visual valentine to Hollywood and a quirky nod to God's place in the cogs of the celluloid factory. God is a major player in this cinematic universe. He's certainly no extra and he has the breakfast to prove it.