Joel and Etan Coen revel in other texts. Their films are fundamentally allusive. At points the references are so subtle that you wonder whether they’re making the connections they make solely for their own pleasure. Hail Caesar (2016) is an exercise in textual references to Hollywood films of the 1940s and 50s. The film itself has the feel of a noir detective mystery. The central character is one Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a “fixer” whose job is to solve all the problems that come up in a film studio. He’s also considering a job offer from Lockheed, where he would have a more lucrative and less stressful work. He’s a deeply moral man who goes to confession once a day and considers himself sinful because he can’t manage to quit smoking and lies to his wife about it. He feels guilty for not spending enough time with his family. Yet he works in a job whose primary purpose is to camouflage and hide from public eyes the scandal and immorality the film industry encompasses. All the noir atmosphere and frame of the film accomplishes is to set a mood and then mostly to abandon it, returning now and then to renew it and then abandon it once again. This is basically the main method of Hail Caesar: continually establishing and reestablishing itself as a film in a genre that it immediately denies itself the privilege of inhabiting.
The title refers to a film being made within the film, a Biblical sword and sandal epic, a “Story of the Christ” (cf. Ben-Hur). A number of set pieces from various films proliferate. There is an Esther Williams-type swimming pool ballet, an On the Town-type dance and song piece in a bar, a singing cowboy film, a domestic drama. You can connect these scenes to actual films, the actors to real actors and actresses.
The focus of Hail Caesar is on the kidnapping of lead actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) by a group of disaffected self-proclaimed Marxist screen writers. They’ve been schooled in Marxism by a college professor, a Professor Herbert Marcuse, who I suppose is the actual fellow himself. They kidnap Whitlock and hold him for a $100,000 ransom. In the process, they convert him (briefly) to Marxism, though he is not intelligent enough to know what it is. One of the group explains to Whitlock how they’ve all worked without adequate compensation but that at least they’ve managed to implant subtle Marxist references in the films they scripted. Later, we see the filming of the final scene of “Hail Caesar” (the film within the film), which is made after Blaine is rescued from his captors. In the scene, Christ gives a speech from the cross which is fundamentally Marxist. This is what I mean by a reference or moment so subtle that only the Coens themselves might “get it.”
One might be tempted to see Hail Caesar as a tribute to the classical period of Hollywood films. It is that, but it’s also highly ironic and satirical. It ridicules while it pays tribute. It agrees, basically, with the Marxist premise of the disaffected writers, on the one hand, yet it finds them absurd and full of self-interest on the other. No one in the film actually takes what they are doing seriously. They may be advancing their careers or producing films that will make them all a lot of money. But they don’t actually think in terms of producing something of value, such as art.
In essence, the “Caesar” of the title is a reference to the film industry, and not a fond reference so much as an obvious one. Everyone bows down to the industry. The first words you see in the film at the end as the credits begin to roll are the names of the directors, Joel and Etan Coen. They implicate themselves in their own imbroglio.
The film is entertaining because of some characters (especially Mannix and Whitlock, but also the singing cowboy) and because of the set pieces, but as a whole it seems to meander and never really takes off.My favorite scene involved a rabbi, Catholic priest, Greek Orthodox priest, and a protestant minister whom Eddie Mannix gathers to consult as to whether the religious content of “Hail Caesar” will offend viewers. He calls the story of Christ a “swell story” and assures the clerics that “the Bible is terrific.” The meeting results in a hilarious argument in which no one can agree on anything: who God is, whether he can be shown on screen, how to refer to him, whether he has a son, whether he is angry or full of love, whether he is one god or three-in-one gods, whether the question is relevant at all. Insults ensue. I was reminded of faculty meetings I’ve attended.