The last time I wrote about the Coen brothers’ world-picture in these pages, reviewing their Job-in-Minnesota movie, A Serious Man, I suggested that the elusive auteurs were “proudly mysterian” — making movies that consistently wrestle with the possibility that some god or fate governs human life but never come around to any kind of firm metaphysical conclusion.
After seeing their latest entertainment, Hail, Caesar!, I would like to amend that analysis just a little bit. It isn’t so much that every Coen movie is equally mysterian; it’s that the brothers seem to deliberately inhabit different metaphysical perspectives in different films. Thus — to pick recent examples — A Serious Man was essentially a Jewish story set in a cosmos governed by the demanding yet inscrutable Hashem. True Grit was as Calvinist as its undaunted protagonist, Mattie Ross. No Country for Old Men was genuinely mysterian, in the dark, God-haunted style of its Cormac McCarthy source. Burn after Reading was bleakly nihilistic, a Seinfeld episode with spies and mayhem.
And now, with Hail, Caesar!, we have the Coens’ most Catholic film — as successfully and even earnestly Catholic, it must be said, as anything from a director actually raised in the Roman faith.
The movie’s Catholicity may be slightly obscured by the fact that it’s officially an Old Hollywood picture, set in the last days of the studio system and shot through with nostalgia for the tropes and genres of that era. The lead is Eddie Mannix (a glowering Josh Brolin), a fixer at Capitol Pictures, where he has to manage a cavalcade of personalities: the pregnant starlet (Scarlett Johansson), the twin-sister gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton and Tilda Swinton), the pretentious European director (Ralph Fiennes, perfect), the Kelly/Crosby song-and-dance man (Channing Tatum), and the twanging Western star (Alden Ehrenreich) whom the God-like studio head has decreed will make the transition to Cary Grantish suavity. But his biggest problem is his biggest star: Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who’s supposed to be headlining a Ben-Hur–ish epic, Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ, but has been kidnapped.
The quest to solve the kidnapping provides the movie’s narrative spine, but really Hail, Caesar! is more interested in the wider human comedy of the studio life. Mannix, the fixer, carries a heavy burden — one might even say a cross — and he’s contemplating taking a job at Lockheed instead: easier hours, better pay, less responsibility, plus the chance to get in on the Cold War action. But without him, what would happen to the stars, the directors, the extras, the fans? How would this actor know which actress to date? How would that director know how to cope with his seemingly hopeless new leading man? How would past sins be kept from scandalous exposure, and present scandals resolved with a minimum of fuss?
A number of reviews of this film have cast it as a critique of the studio system, fond but also cutting in its depiction of how Old Hollywood manipulated its talent, micromanaged their lives, and sold their fans on a gossamer illusion while keeping the seamy truth safely under wraps. I don’t doubt that the Coen brothers would agree that in reality the old system was oppressive and sexist and overly censorious. But that kind of critique isn’t what Hail, Caesar! is really offering. In the context of the film, the studio is essentially benevolent, and its fixer a good shepherd, steering and rescuing his straying sheep.
Indeed, in a story drenched in Catholic imagery — Mannix begins his journey in a confessional and ends it staring at the three crosses from his sword-and-sandal epic’s set — the studio plays like, well, a devout Catholic’s idea of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. It’s a corporate entity populated by a motley array of knaves and sinners, in which true happiness generally belongs to those who trust the studio’s wisdom, who accept their appointed roles, and who let themselves be guided by its rules and strictures rather than rebelling against them.
The rebels against this benevolent order, meanwhile, are portrayed as well-intentioned but basically deluded: They’re a pack of disgruntled Communist screenwriters who bicker about the dialectic, gripe about their pay, and are revealed to be dupes of a Lower Power. (The portrait of Red Hollywood made me wish Hail, Caesar! had opened the same week as last fall’s Trumbo.) And anyone seduced by their patter needs to be drawn — or slapped — back onto the true path, which for both Mannix and the kidnapped Whitlock ends at the foot of the cross.
The movie’s vision of Old Hollywood, then, is basically borrowed from Saint Paul. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. And so it is with Roman Cathol — er, Capitol Pictures as well.