Look, I know there’s no bigger cliché than a Christian critic sitting around identifying “Christ figures” at the movies. But in their latest, Joel and Ethan Coen show their hand so obviously—the subtitle for the Ben Hur-like film-within-a-film, also called Hail, Caesar!, is “A Tale of the Christ”—that I’m either being trolled or baited. I’ll bite.
Among many (many, many) things, Hail, Caesar! is a passion play: a canny bit of work on the Coens’ part, given this year’s proliferation of biblical epics both remade and reimagined. In just the next few months, that includes Risen, The Young Messiah, Last Days in the Desert, the Tyler Perry-hosted The Passion Live, and the ABC show Of Kings and Prophets—and, yes, a Ben Hur remake.
The Coens (being Coens) come at it as a farce, with about 18 different things rumbling beneath the surface. On its basic level, Hail, Caesar! is an affectionate celebration, mild critique, and winking pastiche of Hollywood’s Golden Age, when studios owned actors’ contracts and shot everything from swashbuckling song-and-dance numbers to sword-and-sandal epics on the back lot. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, the executive in charge of production at Capitol Pictures (that name becomes important later). He goes to confession a lot (“too much,” his priest says wearily) for infractions like smoking a few cigarettes, answers to the never-seen studio head Mr. Schenck (pronounced "skank"), and is being wooed by Lockheed Martin in a job that might involve H-bombs but would still be easier than wrangling the cast of characters he’s stuck with.
Those characters feel like what would happen if Turner Classic Movies accidentally left the door unlocked at night. Scarlett Johansson is a mermaid in a synchronized swimming fantasy picture; Ralph Fiennes helms a high-society Broadway adaptation in which America’s favorite lassoing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) is being forced to star so the studio can “change his image”; Channing Tatum is a deceptively mild-mannered singing and tap-dancing sailor; there’s a Carmen Miranda-like sweetheart (Veronica Osorio)—and George Clooney is a centurion among slaves in the sword-and-sandal Hail, Caesar!
That last production is in full swing, and Mannix is watching the dailies (“DIVINE PRESENCE TO BE SHOT,” the subtitles announce at opportune moments—the film is still in production) when he discovers its star has been kidnapped.
In one subplot, in a nod to the Communist writers who were blacklisted, a disciple-like cadre of Communist acolytes following their leader—suggestively named Dr. Marcuse—kidnap Clooney’s genial star and educate him in the ways of “direct action” and “accelerating the dialectic” while holding him for ransom (a startlingly common plot point in the Coens’ films, by the way). Everything can be explained by economics, they say, quoting Marx, and so certainly the concept of rendering to Caesar—either through Capitol Pictures, Das Kapital, or capitalism—is part of this title.
But mostly it’s about the meaning of life by way of religion, with which the Coens have always fiddled, sometimes dancing around the edges and sometimes diving straight into the middle. Hollywood’s Golden Age gives them the perfect excuse for a hysterical scene straight out of a joke: two priests (one Catholic, one Orthodox), a Protestant minister, and a rabbi sit in a boardroom with Mannix, debating whether the depiction of Christ in an upcoming picture “cuts the mustard” or is offensive. As the rabbi points out, for Jews it’s forbidden to portray God, but luckily for them Jesus isn’t part of the godhead. One of the ministers explains that technically Jesus is the Son of God. (The conventional disclaimers at the end of the credits explain that “This motion picture contains no visual depiction of the godhead.”)