Reel Talk

Hail, Caesar! and the Power of the Pictures

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Francesco Francavilla’s amazing poster


Folks, we’ve been spoiled lately. Not only do we get a new amazing Tarantino movie, we get a new Coen Brothers movie. I’ve talked a little about the work or Joel and Ethan Coen on this site, but certainly not enough. They’re wonderful. The Coen Brothers are right up there with Quentin Tarantino for me for directors that have the best batting average. Yeah, a lot of the classic directors do some amazing work, but they also have their fair share of misses. But I really love everything the Coen’s have done. I even enjoy some of their weirder and more maligned flicks, like Intolerable Cruelty, the Ladykillers, or Hudsucker Proxy. It’s all gold for me. So yeah, there’s going to be a lot of anticipation when they get a new movie going, especially when it’s going to be a comedy. Because man the Coen’s are great at comedies. Don’t get me wrong, I love their dramas too, No Country for Old Men and Inside Llewyn Davis are two of my favorite movies, but when the Coen’s do comedy, they knock it out of the park. Very few directors just dive in and make absolutely zany movies like they can. They seem to be in a trend of dramas, which is working out for them great, so I was so excited to see a new comedy. Plus, I’ve been hearing about Hail, Caesar for a long time, and have loved the idea. I remember hearing the premise years ago, where Clooney was going to be a director of an ill-fated Roman epic movie, which I guess went through a few changes to become the little treat we got instead. So I went to check out Hail, Caesar! the other day, and man is it fun.


Hail, Caesar! ended up being a very fun love-letter two the whole concept of movies while becoming a very Coen noir about a bunch of morons. I really love that a typical Coen comedy is all about a group of stupid people somehow succeeding in life despite the fact that they’re all enormously incompetent. I think they like to use the phrase numbskulls when describing their characters, especially ones played by George Clooney, and I think that’s a really apt description of them. And this movie has given us a cornucopia of numbskulls. The plot more or less revolves around a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) a real-life studio fixer who is here working for fictitious Capitol Pictures in the 1950s. His day is full of him babysitting a bunch of goofy actors who are mostly thinly veiled versions of real actors of the time, all while some intrigue is building around the filming of their newest prestige picture, Hail, Caesar! It’s the story of a Roman centurian played by respected actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) who ends up meeting Jesus and it changes his life. Mannix ends up meeting with a group of religious scholars, including a rabbi, trying to get their approval for the movie. But while he’s getting that going, things gets worse when Baird is drugged and kidnapped off the set. He’s then taken out to a mysterious house in Malibu and held ransom, while Eddie just keeps assuming he’s out on a bender. But when the ransom note comes in, Eddie begins fretting about this impending scandal while dealing with all sorts of other goofy issues. He has a spoiled actress whose illegitimate child he’s trying to cover up (Scarlet Johannson), a cowboy actor who is having to attempt to act in a drama (Alden Ehrenreich) and two twin gossip columnists who are breathing down his neck (Tilda Swinton).

Hail Caesar Eddie Mannix

And things start to get even crazier when we find out that Whitlock has been kidnapped by a group of Communist screenwriters, presumably on the Blacklist, who have taken him to try and convince him to join the Party and hold him ransom for money for the cause. So Eddie begins running around the lot, making all kinds of deals and trying to put all the fires he can out while getting the ransom taken care of. And all of this is happening while Eddie is dealing with a job offer he get from a man representing Lockheed, who wants Eddie to leave the crazy world of show-business and manage respectable adults in the business world. The movie then becomes a series of scenes showing all the goofy actors making their awful looking movies, the people behind the scenes not really caring about it, Eddie racing around like a chicken with his head cut off, and Baird becoming increasingly interested in Communism. But in the end, after a full day of seeing Eddie dealing with horrible problem after horrible problem, Baird is returned, and all the problems have found solutions, though they may be temporary. And Eddie decides that there’s no where else he’d rather be than in the crazy world of Hollywood.

This movie was so much fun. I really love movies about movie-making, because they’re always such messes, making it seem like it’s a miracle any movie ever comes out. This period in Hollywood is so beloved, and revered and the movie ended up really giving us an honest view of the time. We like to deify that time in the history of movies, since all we remember are the classics that got made, while ignoring all the stinkers. People today complain about the glut of bad movies coming out, forgetting that there have always been really bad movies that were just cash-grabs. None of the movies that we see Capitol Pictures making look like they’re any good, all no one involved in them really though they were (except maybe Ralph Fiennes’ hilariously pretentious director Laurence Laurentz). But they’re still trucking along, doing their job, just getting through the day. It’s great that this movie was really about movie-making, not movies. Which is a small distinction, but an important one. It shows how hard movies are to make, and how futile it can sometimes be, but in the end you can accidentally make something that will actually move people.

But the thing that I really loved about this movie was that it seemed to be about something that Coen Brothers movies frequently tackle. Faith. Their movies often look at the complicated worlds of religion, philosophy, and beliefs. The movie shows several people dealing with their beliefs, and pushing them on other people. The group of theologians all argue about the divinity of Jesus, and how best to worship him and the Communists do nothing but try and push their ideology on the simple Baird Whitlock. But in the end there’s another big faith that this movie pushes. Faith in the movies. Eddie Mannix is shown as a very devout man, going to confessional way too much in the span of the movie, but when Baird finally gets back to the lot and starts spouting off about his new-found love of Communism, Eddie ends up smacking him around and explaining how much he should love the movie industry. To paraphrase Jim Davis, if you take care of the pictures, the pictures will take care of you. I feel like the moral of the movie ended up being that you need to believe in something to get through life. It could be religion, it could be Capitalism, it could be Communism, and it could be the movies, you just need something in your life. Everyone in the movie completely relies on Capitol Pictures and Eddie Mannix, and by the end he’s provided for everyone. Because movies are the one true faith, an amazing medium that can be used to convey any of these lesser beliefs. They’re trying to make a movie that sells people on Christianity, Laurentz is trying to make a movie that sells people on emotion, and the Communists are trying to write movies that sell people on their economic belief.

And since the Coen Brothers are masters of their craft, they deal with all of this heady symbolism and metaphor while also making a truly wonderful and entertaining movie. Eddie Mannix, Baird Whitlock, and Hobie Doyble are great numbskulls, and will be remembered as classic Coen creations. And while all of the movies we see being filmed at Capitol Pictures are supposed to be half-assed cash-grabs, they’re still very well made. The crazy water-ballet that Scarlet Johannson is in in impeccably choreographed, as is the goofy tap dance number that Channing Tatum’s character is filming. Everything about this movie was enjoyable, and it really sold me on the idea of the Coens making a big throwback musical movie, because they clearly have an affinity, and a knack, for making them.

Hail, Casar! was written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, and released by Universal Pictures, 2016.

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