“A truth written not in words but in light” says one character late into the Coen Brothers latest film and return to the comedy genre, Hail Caesar! This is merely a small part of a grand climactic monologue, but it’s one of the more elegant descriptions of the potential of cinema that I’ve ever heard. Does the movie as a whole live up to that grand potential? Perhaps. I’ve only seen it once, and that viewing left me with a thirst for a second and the impression that there are many more ideas in this one left for me to unpack. But I can say with confidence that Hail Caesar! is far more interesting than your average comedy.
The film follows Eddie Mannix, a fixer for a 1950’s Hollywood film studio responsible for putting out all the varied fires that can spring up in a major entertainment enterprise: covering up scandals involving popular starlets, keeping the peace between a multitude of volatile artists, making sure money isn’t wasted through the excesses of major productions, and, as becomes the central problem of the story, tracking down lead actors when they are kidnapped by mysterious groups who identify themselves only as “The Future”. Mannix is great at his job, but along the way, he begins to question his value and purpose in the grand scheme of things. The result is a film about finding the faith necessary to serve something larger than yourself as well as a reminder that Hollywood can do more than churn out simple entertainment.
Hail Caesar! would make an interesting companion piece to the Coen’s most successful comedy, The Big Lewbowski. Both feature characters being pulled to and fro by outside forces (the increasingly absurd denizens of Los Angeles), but whereas The Dude was content to just abide, knowing his place as a cog in a larger machine that he cannot hope to control, Eddie Mannix must fight to maintain control on a day to day basis. Like Christ, (a comparison the film explicitly points to), Mannix must take the sins of these actors, directors, and other assorted cogs upon himself in order to keep the Hollywood machine running in a direction that, hopefully, serves some larger good. Like Christ, he faces a choice: to let the cup pass from him by taking a cushy job for a weapons manufacturer, or to stay and suffer for good of others.
But the story isn’t told with the sedate reverence that one would expect from a film that trades in biblical inspiration and themes. Joel Coen has described a director’s primary job as “managing tone”, and here he never lets the film settle into any one dominant mood, shifting it constantly for laughs and to prevent it from ever becoming too heavily weighed down by its central concerns. This tone management seems to be the film’s primary comedic tool and everyone in the ensemble supporting cast (Clooney, Johannson, Tatum, Swinton, Fiennes, and especially relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich) gives wonderfully hammy performances, providing a kaleidoscope of comedic foils for Josh Brolin. I imagine that this script was not nearly as funny on the page as it is on the screen, but the Coens and their cast know exactly what they needed to make it work (I particularly loved the line readings every time a character mentioned the movie title “On Wings as Eagles!” which just made me laugh harder each time I heard it. That sort of joke requires a deal of foresight to pull off).
Visually, the Coens have always been subtle craftsmen, bringing lots of little touches to the table that you don’t notice unless you look for them but which nevertheless have a major impact on how we experience the film (“tone management” again). We are, as ever, puppets in the control of these master storytellers. In this case, they bring a touch of artificiality to the proceedings (an interesting stylistic departure for their usual collaborator, Roger “13-Oscar-Nominations-and-No-Wins-Because-There-Is-No-Justice-In-the-Universe” Deakins), which works well for obvious reasons in the numerous little vignettes we see of the various films being shot in this studio (true film nerds will completely geek out on this stuff), but also adds a heightened layer of absurdity to the off-set scenes (For example, submarine that shows up at one point which I just couldn’t help but giggle at. My only explanation is how deliberately fake the whole thing looked). Also look out for some really nice flourishes in the sound design (a moment involving a picture of an atomic bomb, for example).
The only problem here, if there is one, is that this is the Coen’s 17th film and at least half of those predecessors are regularly held up by critics as being amongst the greatest works ever made in their respective genres, if not of all time. They’ve done films that are funnier and more thought provoking, but to say that it only rises to the middle of a pack of near-masterpieces is no slight against it. This is a great film, and I suspect it will only get better with age.