Leave it to the Coen brothers, masters of sarcasm, to make a movie in which Hollywood is run by Catholics. Hail, Caesar! opens with two shots of Jesus on the cross and then decisively cuts to a third martyr: '50s studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who sacrifices his wife and sanity to keep the film cameras cranking.
Boy, does Mannix suffer. Today — a day that seems no crazier than other days — a swimming starlet (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant, a top-notch director (Ralph Fiennes) loathes his leading man, and twin gossip columnists (both played by Tilda Swinton) threaten to print dirt about Capitol Pictures' biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), currently playing a Roman in a blockbuster biblical epic. (At last, Clooney has an excuse to resurrect his ER-era Caesar haircut.) Worse, Baird has just been kidnapped by a cabal of Communist screenwriters angry that they don't get a bigger share of the profits. To them, Mannix isn't a prophet — he's a parasite. The Coens are more sympathetic. They hand Mannix a rosary, send him twice to church, frame him before three prop crucifixes, and score his crusade with the solemn chants of Gregorian monks. All that's missing is stigmata — if only his assistant (Heather Goldenhersh) stabbed his hands with a pen.
Is Mannix's pain worth it? Absolutely, says the narrator (Michael Gambon). Movies aren't just entertainment. They're “balm for the ache of a toiling mankind.” When Clooney's doltish superstar, swayed by his Communist captors, dismisses his own films as factory-made lollipops, Mannix slaps him in the face.
That slap isn't so saintly. Neither is an early scene in which Mannix knocks around a newbie actress caught posing for cheesecake pictures. Didn't Jesus embrace harlots? Yet, when Mannix confesses the day's sins to his priest, he only apologizes for hitting the dude. (Cue what could be Quentin Tarantino's legit complaint: “How come the Coens get away that? At least my girl was a murderer!”)
Still, a Christlike movie magnate makes sense. Hollywood has convinced the world to worship mortals as gods. The priest, deacon, rabbi, and pastor Mannix asks to approve his Bible flick don't agree on its portrayal of Jesus, but they all believe Baird Whitlock is divine. Even young Karol Wojtyla dabbled in acting before becoming Pope John Paul II.
And, like an omniscient deity, Mannix has the power to uncover and absolve everyone's secret sins. He stashes drunks in rehab with “ankle sprains” and finds husbands for knocked-up starlets to protect their sacred fan-magazine virginity. In this last decade of the star system, Mannix is the shepherd of his sheep. He controls his actors' careers, their love lives, and even their self-identity, ordering superstar cowboy Hobie Doyle (breakout talent Alden Ehrenreich -- fantastic) to transform into a tuxedoed gentleman for a drawing room romance, a role that fits Hobie as comfortably as a lasso choking an ox. When Fiennes's director orders Hobie to sigh, “Would that it t'were so simple,” the kid trips over the words until it's the world's most ironic tongue twister.
A Coen brothers comedy works like a prism. Look at it flat-on and it's a lark with clever cinematography and cameos, like the film's unabashed use of heroic close-ups and thick Los Angeles smog that makes Mannix appear to be floating on an angelic cloud, plus Coen perennial Frances McDormand's one scene as a chain-smoking editor who favors dangerous scarves. (Jayne Mansfield's cautionary death is still 16 years ahead.) It's possible to enjoy Hail, Caesar! simply for the fast jokes and referential musical numbers. Channing Tatum's Gene Kelly–eqsue athletic tap dance is a standout, marred just a bit by Tatum's self-conscious smirk. (Kelly would have simply grinned.) During Johansson's water ballet, the old man next to me blurted, “Esther Williams!” and then promptly fell asleep. That the Coens already referenced Busby Berkeley in The Big Lebowski risks younger fans thinking they're merely paying homage to themselves — which, on some level, maybe they are.
However, hold Hail, Caesar! at a slant and the Coens have colored the script with a rainbow of allusions. Here, Hollywood is the new Roman empire. The stars sashay like fatted calves — Clooney gives the camera his dopiest cow eyes — while the extras cast as slaves are treated as such. In this hierarchy, the movie-within-a-movie's literal Jesus, an Akron nobody who won a talent search, is treated like a prop on a cross. Even the Biblical epic itself is being made for profit and prestige, not preaching. (There's still so much money in faith-based films in 2016 that two Jesus biopics are opening within the next few weeks alone.) Meanwhile, the Communists battle Mannix for Baird's loyalty: Will the box office draw put his faith in Das Kapital or Capitol Pictures?
It's self-congratulatory fun to spot the parallels in Hail, Caesar! Yet, as those parallels get increasingly crosshatched and contradictory, there's a growing suspicion that the Coens would shatter the whole film for a laugh. After all, the filmmakers who skewered their own Judaism in A Serious Man certainly have no reverence for Catholics. Their gags exist in their individual moments; stacked together, they topple over into nonsense. Is Eddie Mannix a devout saint or a fatuous exec who refers to the Bible as “a swell story”? Would a man we see go to confession twice in 24 hours shrug off Jesus as “the swell figure from the East”? And why beatify a character inspired by the real Eddie Mannix, an MGM exec for 39 years, when Hollywood historians suspect Mannix asked his Mafia connections to murder his first wife and the lover of his second?
There's consistency in the Coens' inconsistency. They're obsessed with faith in the way a kid too old for Santa spends his last Christmas determined to disprove him. In film after film, they've fixated on morality and justice — the big questions underpinning every religion — while ultimately concluding that none of it matters. Bad people win, good people lose, and eventually everyone dies. We may as well spend two hours of our time on earth applauding Tatum's graceful front-flip or watching Clooney's actor tear into a monologue about sacrifice that he sells to everyone on set. Who cares if a higher power hears him? The box office passes final judgment. In the dailies of Hail, Caesar!'s fictional Hail, Caesar!, a title card reads, “Divine presence to be shot.” To the Coens, is that a promise or a threat?