Hail Caesar: A serious comedy in time for Lent
by Ted Giese
On a storyline spectrum, Joel and Ethan Coen (aka the Coen Brothers) make films ranging from hard-boiled crime to whimsically quirky comedies. Their new film Hail Caesar! is firmly on the comedy side of things, although it leans toward their more serious work. And just because something is meant to be funny doesn’t mean it has nothing to say.
Set in 1950s Hollywood, Hail Caesar! is a fictional “day in the life” story about a Capital Pictures’ studio executive Eddie Mannix. Mannix is the studio’s head of physical production. With a sort of “if you want something done right, do it yourself” attitude, he sets out each day as a hands-on studio fixer, personally labouring at all hours to maintain a wholesome reputation for the company and its stars. Mannix works hard to avoid the sorts of controversies that could cause financial ruin for the studio.
The current potential scandal requiring Mannix’s attention is the kidnapping of the lead actor in “Hail Caesar! — A Tale of the Christ,” the studio’s ambitious sword-and-sandals religious epic. (Think The Robe (1953) or Ben-Hur (1959).) The actor, Baird Whitlock, has been drugged, kidnapped, and whisked away to a beachfront Malibu property by a communist “study group” comprised mainly of Hollywood script-writers demanding a $100,000 ransom. By the end of the day, Mannix needs to get Whitlock back before the press finds out.
Christian viewers will immediately recognize Mannix as a Christian character. His faith is not cynical or held lightly. In Mannix, the Coen Brothers have crafted a character that falls into a category that Terry Mattingly of Get Religion calls a “sweats-the-details” Catholic who goes to confession. And that’s where viewers meet Mannix—in the confession booth, confessing his sins to his priest. When asked, “How long has it been since your last confession, son?” Mannix looks at his watch and responds, “27 hours.” The priest responds, “It’s really too often; you’re not that bad.” Mannix thinks otherwise or he wouldn’t be there! One of the things he’s concerned about is that he told his wife he’d stop smoking and, in the course of his previous day, he’d smoked and then lied to her about it. The lie troubles him deeply: he wants to do better for his wife and family; he wants to do better in the eyes of God.
Viewers will immediately recognize Mannix as a Christian character. His faith is not cynical or held lightly. In Mannix, the Coen Brothers have crafted a character that is a “sweats-the-details” Catholic.
By the end of the film, Mannix is again in the confessional. This time his confession includes details from the film’s events. Essentially, Mannix’s character is concerned with virtue in a world of vice—heady stuff for a comedy. Fortunately, the Coen’s don’t play Mannix’s Christianity just for laughs. Instead, his faith becomes the foil to the absurdity of the situation and the hi-jinx swirling around the film’s kidnapping plot.
Complicating Mannix’s day is a job offer to work for a fledgling aerospace company, Lockheed Martin, which would pay him more and provide him with regular office hours. Viewers are left to wonder whether Mannix will continue working as a Capital Pictures’ studio executive or move on. The film literally asks the philosophical question, “Is it better to work the hard job that’s ‘right’ or take the perfectly good job that’s easy.” The question haunts Mannix at every turn, as do the temptation to smoke which he struggles with—sometimes he smokes when offered cigarettes, and sometimes he resists. Deep down he knows every cigarette is a lie to his wife, and that lying is a sin. He is a man in need of forgiveness, with lot on his mind, a lot on his plate, and he knows it.
The fictional ‘movie inside the movie’ “Hail Caesar!—A Tale of the Christ” is also an interesting part of the equation. The Coen’s do an admiral job recreating something many Christians will recognize: the careful middle-of-the-road biblical epic. This fictional film looks and feels like a Cecil B. de Mille extravaganza. There is even a scene where Mannix sits down with Christian clergy—Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant—and a Jewish rabbi to talk about the film’s theology seeking their approval. Mannix particularly wants their blessing on the portrayal of Jesus as the Son of God, the ‘Christ’ in his studio’s film. The rabbi is quick to explain, “God doesn’t have any children, He’s a bachelor. And He’s very angry.” The Orthodox priest on the other hand finds one of the script’s action sequences more problematic than any depiction of Jesus. Even though this religious “focus group” is lively and humorous it doesn’t come across as mean-spirited.
At the climax of the ‘movie inside the movie’, Whitlock, playing a Roman centurion, marches in to stand at the foot of the cross at Jesus’ crucifixion. The film’s actors and extras, along with the filmmakers who are all on the set living their vocations, are shown intently listening to Whitlock’s impassioned speech in which he says that Christ Jesus “saw us in our sin,” and “came to bring us love.” As everyone listens, hanging on the handsome and charming Whitlock’s every word, he flubs the end of his line: there is “Truth beyond this world,” he says, “a Truth we could see if we had but… if we ha[d] … ha[d] …” “FAITH!” the director interjects.
If we had but faith. Christian viewers know who the Truth is—Jesus, (John 14:6)— just as they might also recall St. Paul explaining that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ,” (Romans 10:17). There is a surprising earnestness in how the Coen Brothers present the Christian faith in Hail Caesar! At its core the film shows no malice toward Christianity, Jesus, or Mannix. This is refreshing.
There is a surprising earnestness in how the Coen Brothers present the Christian faith in Hail Caesar! At its core the film shows no malice toward Christianity, Jesus, or Mannix. This is refreshing.
Is Hail Caesar! the best the Coen Brothers have offered? No. But there are plenty of great performances and laughs along the way. More importantly, the film presents worthwhile themes and poses questions with regard to virtue, and confession and absolution. Lutheran viewers will disregard the prescribed penance of “Hail Marys and Our Fathers,” but will revel in a pleasantly surprising film about repentance and faithfulness conveniently in theatres as the Church observes Lent. Hail Caesar! A comedy? Yes. A mindless comedy? No.
Rev. Ted Giese is associate pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church (Regina, Saskatchewan). He is a contributor to Reformation Rush Hour on KFUO AM Radio, The Canadian Lutheran, and the LCMS Reporter, as well as movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow him on Twitter @RevTedGiese.