Hail Caesar! The Coen brothers’ sensational spiritual fable

The opening shot of Joel and Ethan Coen’s new comedy Hail, Caesar! is a close-up of Christ on the cross. We then get an establishing shot of a Catholic Church, where overworked movie studio “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) has come to take confession. He tells the priest it has been 24 hours since his last confession, before admitting he has lied to his wife about quitting smoking (he’s had three cigarettes in the last day). The scene ends quietly, without the expected punchline.

This scene is one of many in Hail, Caesar! that highlight the fixation the Coen Brothers have on religious faith in many of their films. For a directing duo whose work is so diverse they have their own subgenres (goofy Coen comedy, dark Coen comedy, Coen drama, etc), this seems to be one of the major constants throughout their body of work. Hail, Caesar! is a funny movie, one that occasionally plays religion for laughs, but even the jokes here are probing for something much deeper than we typically see in so-called “religious” fare. Behind the laughs, we find once again that the Coens take religious faith quite seriously—and that, I must say, is pretty damn refreshing.

Hail Caesar! is set during the golden age of the Hollywood studio system, where movies were seen as morally degrading work and stars had to maintain a squeaky-clean image in order to be successful. Mannix is a man attempting to live a life of depth while forced to care very much about the artificial image of the stars under his care. Some of these stars include aquatic icon DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), fading western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) and vacuous pretty boy Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Each star is facing an image crisis, of course. Moran is expecting a child out of wedlock, a fact which would destroy her career. Doyle (in an uproarious scene) is forced to star in a British costume drama directed by the demanding Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Finnes) for which he is spectacularly unqualified. And Baird is, well…missing. Kidnapped, in fact, by a mysterious organization known only as “The Future,” right in the middle of starring in the lavish period drama Hail Caesar: A Tale of the Christ (an obvious reference to Ben Hur).

As Mannix deals with these series of PR crises, he considers an offer from Lockheed to move to more “important” work. But even through the chaos, Mannix shows a clear commitment to authenticity. This is driven home in the film’s best scene, where he gathers religious scholars to discuss the accuracy of the portrayal of Christ in the upcoming epic. What starts as an interesting conversation develops into an extended theological back-and-forth on the nature of Christ’s divinity. It’s an extraordinary scene, funny and biting and profound, which makes it quintessentially Coen.

Hail Caesar! is the latest example of the Coen brothers' keen eye for sensitive portrayals of religious faith.

Hail Caesar! is the latest example of the Coen brothers’ keen eye for sensitive portrayals of religious faith.

This spiritual profundity is mixed with a nostalgic eye for the Hollywood classics, which the Coens clearly have great respect for. Musicals, costume dramas and westerns are gently mocked through the course of the film. But the central genre on trial here is the biblical epic, and the timing couldn’t be better. In an era where seemingly every producer is foaming at the mouth to make the next great biblical epic (whether on TV or in theaters), the Coens are reminding us of the frequently vacuous nature of “message” movies, particularly religious ones. Hail Caesar! (the film within the film) is meant to pander to the most base, feel-good, whitewashed version of Christianity (much like the original Ben Hur, in fact). The contrast between such artificial faith and Eddie’s staunch Catholicism is stark, but Eddie is still committed to making it the best representation possible.

The nature of celebrity, religion, consumerism, communism (yes, they take plenty of shots at political philosophy too)–these are heavy themes, and the Coens have often tackled them in a somber way. Here, they take a different route, for which I am quite grateful. The film is, after all, simply a pure delight to watch. The rich period details are given extraordinary pop thanks to Roger Deakins’ always-great cinematography. The performances are all-around phenomenal. And the nostalgic tone is emphasized by joyous moments such as a wonderful old-fashioned musical number (starring the immensely talented Channing Tatum). In the sub-genre of “goofy” Coen comedies, this is thankfully more O Brother, Where Art Thou? than Burn After Reading.

But the film’s silly plot is ultimately pretty inconsequential. Always simmering beneath the fun is the Coens’ most overt and accomplished religious fable besides A Serious Man. That very funny but much more somber film explored Jewish themes through a modern-day examination of the Old Testament book of Job.  Despite its change in style, Hail Caesar! seems to be the Christian response. Both films feature a man at a crossroads in his life, dedicated to his family and his faith even while the rest of the world seems to be crashing in around him. And both are potent allegories for living a life of authenticity in a world obsessed with artifice.

Religion is important to society and deserves to be respected and admired—today. How often do we hear that message from Hollywood? If faith is not outright mocked, it is given the quaint treatment, its importance relegated to a period in time (as in period pieces, wink, wink) but having little relevance to the modern world. The Coens are part of a select few working filmmakers who have deliberately pushed back against that more popular notion. Through the guise of a period piece, they are pointing the finger at their own industry, and maybe even themselves. The fact that said piece is one of the most purely enjoyable movies in ages is simply a welcome bonus.

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