There is perhaps no other team in Hollywood so consistently reamed in reviews for misconceptions about their films resulting from their own advertising as are Ethan and Joel Coen. It happened with Intolerable Cruelty; it happened with Burn After Reading; it happened with Inside Llewyn Davis; and now it is happening with Hail, Caesar! as well. Whoever is in charge of marketing these movies is doing a comically bad job.
For the most part, the error is clear: The Coens’ nuanced dark comedies and comedic dramas keep being marketed as flat, uncontroversial, plain old comedies. In my personal opinion, the movie of theirs that was most affected by this disconnect between the total levity of the marketing and the deadpan satire of the film is Burn After Reading. But that’s water under the bridge by now, so instead I would like to spend this article saying exactly what Hail, Caesar! is, and exactly what Hail, Caesar! is not.
The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of Hail Caesar!, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already seen the film.
Trailers for Hail, Caesar!:
Let me start by confronting the elephant in the room: yes, the title says to not trust reviews of the Coen Brothers’ movies and this is a review of one of their movies. Well, feel free to distrust it. It’s good to be skeptical, and I don’t mind, really. In fact, I’ve implied one falsehood already: in reality, Hail, Caesar!‘s critical reception still skews toward the positive, and I would personally rate it on the lower end of the Coens’ filmography. But its failures are of scope and focus, rather than, as I have seen repeated in many reviews, tone or lacking comedy.
Setting the critics aside for now (myself included), I’m going to at least try to dispel some of the damage done by the marketing machine surrounding this film, so that you can enjoy it as much as possible. Now, as a primer, go ahead and watch the video at the bottom of this page and then come back. As with all of the Thursday Theater articles, a trailer for the film is embedded there.
Based only on that trailer, what does Hail, Caesar! look like to you? I’ll tell you what it looks like to me: a silly crime caper movie starring George Clooney. As far as I can tell, the premise is that the kidnapping of a famous movie star endangers a studio and hi-jinks ensue. I was ready for something along the lines of Fargo (a crime movie with an emotional core), with a hint of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (a historical-mythical comedy).
Now here’s the reality: the kidnapping-of-George-Clooney sequence is not the main plot, but instead a subplot that ends in two consecutive anti-climaxes; the main plot is about following mid-twentieth-century movie executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) through a day-in-the-life during a stressful period when he has to make a tough life decision. (Granted, hi-jinks still most assuredly ensue.)
Hail, Caesar!‘s two primary themes are the place of faith and the value of entertainment in a modern society. There is a moment in that trailer when Baird Whitlock (Clooney’s character) is trying to deliver the movie-within-a-movie’s climactic speech and forgets the word ‘faith.’ This may seem like a moment akin to the purely comedic “Would that it were so simple” exchange featured elsewhere in Hail, Caesar!‘s marketing (to similarly ill emphasis).
What the trailer does not show or imply is that, prior to the interruption, the speech goes on for almost 60 seconds of uninterrupted discourse on Whitlock’s character’s sincere conversion. The film portrays it without irony, and we see the speech capturing the attention and awe of everyone in the studio, only for it to be cut off abruptly by Whitlock’s lapse in memory on the last word. The comedy of this moment takes the wind out of the speech’s sails while implying that the core value intended by the movie-within-a-movie (faith) is rather far from the minds of those working on it.
Faith, Value, and Art in Hail, Caesar!:
The theme of faith was very popular in 1950’s Hollywood. Tales of faithful glory and Roman conversion represented many of the lengthy blockbusters of the time. And this tradition carried on for decades, as evidenced by everything from Quo Vadis to The Ten Commandments to A Man for All Seasons to Spartacus. Sprawling religious epics are few and far between these days, but were common currency in the not-too-distant past.
This emphasis on faith is present throughout Hail, Caesar!. But the film is not kind to traditional conceptions of faith. Near the beginning, we see a meeting between Brolin’s character and a number of religious leaders (providing consultation on the movie). The leaders quickly devolve into comical, factional, doctrinal bickering. Religious symbolism and religious scenes in the primary movie-within-a-movie are routinely dealt with perfunctorily or exploited for laughs (including a wonderful moment when we see George Clooney try multiple takes of an awed revelation reaction shot when first laying eyes on the actor playing Jesus).
So, finally, to bridge into where I think the Coens’ conception of faith in Hail, Caesar! overlaps with the value of entertainment, I would like to point out that the movie ends with Brolin’s character choosing to remain at the studio, with an ambiguously tongue-in-cheek ending monologue reporting that this work would bring needed respite and fantasy to a weary world.
This is directorial apologetics; this is a justification for the making of movies. Certainly the Coens have dedicated their lives to that endeavor, and would care deeply about what motivates and justifies that decision. Why not instead, as various characters consider (or do), join a communist revolution or work in the defense industry or settle into family life? And their response, coming in part through that ending monologue, is that filmmaking, or at least entertainment, is the highest church and the most noble calling there is.
The undercurrent of how best to support the working class (especially with scenes concerning the communists of ‘The Future’) seemingly concludes on this note: that the most immediate support the working class can receive is a lightening of their burden through art. Hail, Caesar! alleges that fidelity to the production of enjoyable art is the proper application of faith, and investment of time and energy and capital into the production of enjoyable art is the most responsible economic doctrine.
So, yes, it is a comedy, and, yes, it is funny—with most of the jokes being at the expense of either communism or old actor and director personalities—but to go in expecting nothing but a riotous laugh-a-minute affair is to set yourself up for disappointment. What Hail, Caesar! offers is at once less and more than that. I don’t think it’s even close to being in the top tier of the Coens’ movies, but I also think that reviews characterizing it as a failed satire of Hollywood have paid too much attention to the marketing.