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 ...1