In the twenty-first century, film is an obviously scandalous industry. More troubles seem to come to the limelight every week with the advent of social media and digital journalism. But this isn’t the twenty-first century. Rather, it’s the 1950’s, when studios owned actors’ contracts, films were shot on studio back lots, and synchronized swimming with mermaids was a thing. Eddie (Josh Brolin) is what you might call the fixer. He doesn’t make the movies, but he handles the actors, the contracts, the directors, the sets, the clips, the images of the actors, the press, the everything. And it is a madhouse.
For the most part, Hail, Caesar! is a dramedy (more comedy than drama, admittedly) about Eddie and his coming to terms with his work. He’s being offered a slick deal from Lockheed Martin that means less hours, better retirement, and fewer responsibilities. Meanwhile, everything in the film seems to be pushing him away from the film industry – his best actor goes missing, a Western actor has to be converted to Broadway drama material, his lead actress has an unwed pregnancy to deal with, and that’s all in the first half hour or so.
The first thing that you can say about this film, even given the busy nature of it and the seemingly endless supply of big name actors (George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, etc.), is that it’s a fun movie. The aforementioned synchronized swimming scene is mesmerizing. Channing Tatum has a tap-dancing scene that’s undoubtedly a throwback to the era of Danny Kaye, and Ralph Fiennes is utterly fantastic as the slightly snobby French director (it’s a shame that he’s barely in the film for five minutes). And the thing that makes it more fun is that it’s oddly self-aware in a way. The film is a backhanded parody of the 1950’s film industry, even while paying a great deal of respect to it, and in that way is a film making fun of films, even while it defends their existence to a certain degree (a factor in Eddie’s decision becomes film as art, not just mindless entertainment, which seems to have been a more subtle point that the Coen brothers were going for).
Those are all great elements. Johansson’s Brooklyn accent is utterly fantastic, by the way, and Jonah Hill’s dry delivery is a blast. But it’s the religious elements of the film that had me more intrigued. The film itself opens in a confession booth. The way Eddie goes about his confession makes the viewer wonder at first if there’s more he ought to be confessing but, for the most part, he’s really a good guy. The studio’s film that’s the title of the film is a telling of the story of Christ from the perspective of a Roman, and while the film does take some shots at religious disagreements, played for one of the film’s most comical scenes, it’s very respectful of religion as a whole. Eddie even visits the cross scene of the studio when he’s doing a lot of soul-searching, almost serving as his own sort of “Gethsemane” (although to make Eddie into a Christ figure of this film would be a stretch beyond that of Reed Richards’ capabilities).
So the film is fun, and it’s very respectful of religion. I like all of that about the movie. But there are flaws here as well. At points the film seems unable to decide whether it wants to be a comedy or a drama. Baird Whitlock (George Clooney)’s kidnapping was marketing as the conflict point of the film in the trailers, but serves merely as a pile of job-related troubles for Whitlock in the film. The only real conflict and climax has to do with Eddie’s decision whether or not to take the job, and there are no real surprises in that plot line itself. So even though the journey is fun, it feels like it just goes for a while and then stops without a real plot curve to show for it. That doesn’t make it a bad movie, but it does keep it from being a great one.
Of particular note here is the overlooked subthemes that could have been very compelling nuances in the film’s subject matter. While meeting with Lockheed Martin, the hydrogen bomb is brought up in the conversation. Eddie looks as though he’s going to contest the morality of this development, but they’re interrupted by the server and that discussion never happens. Then it’s just shoved under the table, so to speak. So instead of having this great conflict of morality, where a better job means more unscrupulous work, it’s hardly even addressed. In the same vein, for the good man that Eddie seems to be, he hardly gives the impact of his work on his family a second thought. Instead, the great message of the movie comes down to a thinly veiled version of God’s wanting him to do what makes him happy, the centerpiece of the prosperity gospel that has plagued American culture for the past twenty years.
Now, it should be noted that this is mostly a clean movie, with a few exceptions. A reference is made to “sodomy” (though not in a positive light), and one of the dances is slightly homoerotic, though this may go over some viewers heads. The aforementioned unwed pregnancy is a somewhat prominent subplot point, though no political or social point is ever intended of it. So comparatively speaking, it’s certainly a better movie choice than, say, the vulgar Deadpool. But we shouldn’t evaluate these things comparatively. So on its own merit, Hail, Caesar! is a fun parody of 1950’s film, but fails when it comes to the ultimate message. Yes, I do believe that film is art. That part of the film I really enjoyed. But I certainly hope I can never be accused of making career decisions the way Eddie makes his.