Posted on Monday, February 8th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
With Hail, Caesar!, Joel and Ethan Coen have crafted a movie that’s amusing but baffling, challenging but easygoing, and frivolous but about everything. It’s a film that wears its frustration on its sleeve like a badge of honor, inviting you to engage with it even as it tries to hard to keep you at a distance. It’s funny and sad, silly and serious. In other words, it’s a Coen brothers movie. We’re all probably going to like it a lot more in five years if we’re unsure about it now.
Now that Hail, Caesar! has been out for an entire weekend and you’ve had a chance to see it (because you definitely went out and saw the new Coen brothers film on its opening weekend, right?), let’s take this opportunity to explore how this Hollywood farce fits into the larger Coen canon. Like all of their films, this film reflects their larger worldview and shares ideas with some of their best work. Hail, Caesar!, halfway between Barton Fink and A Serious Man, a cousin of Inside Llewyn Davis and Miller’s Crossing, feels like it fills a specific gap in their overall filmography.
Naturally, spoilers lurk ahead.
A Serious Lead
Josh Brolin‘s Eddie Mannix recalls several past Coen brothers protagonists, even though they may seem to be at odds with one another upon first glance. The head of production at Capitol Pictures (with a name torn straight from real life, but we’ll get to that in a second) is two very different men, depending on the scene. In public, he’s an unflappable leader, a man who knows how the game is played and controls every angle like a master. In private, he’s a guilt-ridden mess, a man who visits his priest on a daily basis and searches for spiritual guidance to justify his strange life in this business that seems so frivolous, so temporary.
The public Eddie Mannix recalls Tom Reagan of Miller’s Crossing, the right-hand-man gangster who navigates the criminal underworld like a pro. Until he doesn’t. Both Hail, Caesar! and Miller’s Crossing initially showcase their leads in their element, doing ugly work, but doing it well enough to earn our grudging respect. Because that’s how the movies work: you can’t help but like someone who is good at their job. However, both films also pull the rug out from underneath the lead without wasting any time and the rest of the story is spent watching them flounder and find their footing in a dangerous new situation that pushes their improvisational skills to the brink. Reagan is perhaps a bit more outwardly bumbling than Mannix, but they both represent a clear Coen type – the Smart Guy, the mastermind, who is reduced to being as desperate at those he lords himself over.
However, Mannix’s private life is a very different shade of Coen business. Although Hail, Caesar! isn’t quite the Catholic answer to A Serious Man, the echoes are there. Mannix’s search for God recalls Larry Gopnik’s quest (which ended in abject failure) to find spiritual guidance and answers that would actually allow him to make sense of his life and existence. Both films lean heavily on the religious guilt of their lead, but the outcome is decidedly different for both of them.
The Old Testament God of A Serious Man doesn’t heed Larry’s calls for assistance, but he certainly seems to be going out of his way to ruin his life. The Christian God that Mannix so desperately wants to please also doesn’t step in to provide divine intervention (it’s no accident that the divine presence in the film within a film still hasn’t been shot), but he seems more passive, more forgiving. Larry’s religious quest ends in ethical doom and possible death for those he cares about; Mannix’s journey concludes with him realizing that God wants him where he is and that even considering that job offer was a foolish bit of business. The movies may not matter as much as airplanes, but this is where the Divine wants him to be. God doesn’t hand-deliver answers, but he’s a capitalist at heart – he doesn’t have time to let himself get ruined while he sits around and waits.