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Hail Caesar is the slapstick comedy about economic philosophy you need right now

The film is full of big stars behaving ridiculously.

George Clooney plays just the latest in a long line of pitch-perfect Coen brother movie dolts.
George Clooney plays just the latest in a long line of pitch-perfect Coen brother movie dolts.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Hail, Caesar! is a big, Looney Tunes confection of a movie.

It's like one of those animated shorts where Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd find themselves running around a studio backlot and proceed to adopt the conventions of different movie genres, depending on the costumes and sets they're surrounded by.



In other words, it's fundamentally very silly. But at its core, it's also a story about change and impermanence, and the way that theoretically perfect systems are worn down by the fact that human beings are always, always imperfect.

That makes a movie in which Channing Tatum tap dances sound a lot more serious than it actually is, but the beauty of Hail, Caesar! is that you can essentially enjoy it as either-or. Watch it for the silly comedy or watch it for the deeper themes — it's a film by the Coen brothers, two of our finest American directors, so it all but begs you to do so.

Here are all the ways that Hail, Caesar's silly and serious sides complement each other, to general delight.

Silly: big stars, behaving ridiculously

Channing Tatum dances.
Look out for dancin' Channing Tatum.

George Clooney is a longtime friend of the Coens, having played doofuses in their films Burn After Reading, Intolerable Cruelty, and (most memorably) O Brother, Where Art Thou? In Hail Caesar, he may have etched his most noteworthy dumbbell yet as Baird Whitlock, an early '50s Hollywood star who toplines the sorts of biblical epics that were the day's equivalent of comic book superhero movies.

Baird finds himself kidnapped, which sets the plot in motion, but it's what happens once he discovers the identity of his captors (which I dare not spoil here) that makes everything that happens to him so daffily enjoyable.

He gets really into the philosophy they espouse, whose advancement his ransom is supposed to benefit — yet he never quite understands what they're talking about, all the same. As with all of Clooney's Coen brothers characters, Baird makes it about halfway there, then just starts thinking about how handsome he is.

But Clooney isn't the only big star here. As mentioned, this is a Hollywood pastiche, which drops in on a bunch of different fictional films and their stars.

Scarlett Johansson turns up as a bathing beauty who stars in the sorts of aquatic musical spectaculars that went out of vogue many decades ago, only to reveal a coarse accent and coarser attitude off screen. Ralph Fiennes is a director of impeccable taste and little patience. Jonah Hill is a lawyer who will do just about anything to keep the movie studio afloat. Tatum, as mentioned, sings and dances. It's terrifically fun.

Serious: Hail, Caesar! is about how nothing lasts

The Coens have always had a propensity for small-c conservatism — the idea that maybe, once in a while, it would be okay if things stayed put and the status quo held firm.

And yet they're also smart enough to understand that almost all organizing principles that humans come up with, be they political, social, or religious, are prone to error because, well, it's humans who come up with them. Thus, they know change is probably inevitable, because perfection is impossible.

Yet there's a mournfulness to this idea, and it permeates Hail, Caesar!. The vast majority of things the film depicts — from the types of movies these actors star in to the lasso tricks that young Western star Hobie (relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich) performs — are now long since gone. When's the last time a contemporary movie began with a cowboy singing a song about the moon, as one of the fake movies within this movie does?

This feeling extends to just about everything else in the film's universe. Communism pops up (as it probably must in a story about early 1950s Hollywood), only to remind us that communism mostly failed because of the humans who supported it. Yet capitalism doesn't fare much better in the Hail, Caesar! worldview, only leading to lots of money for some folks and too little for others.

The only thing that can last, then, is the work you do; the work might endure, even if you yourself are impermanent. In the film's most out-of-nowhere image, one character is presented with a picture of the mushroom cloud from an H-bomb. "Armageddon," he remarks, dryly, and it's as much a reminder of the film's message as anything else. Nothing lasts, except for the things we create. And those things might mark the Earth, for better or for worse.

Silly: everything about this movie's story

Josh Brolin in Hail Caesar
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) tries to keep his movie studio from falling apart. He only sort of succeeds.

The Coens famously don't outline their scripts — they simply start on page one and follow the characters where they want to go. The brothers are so smart about how stories work that they can usually get away with this approach; at its best, it gives their movies a jolt of the unexpected, as when Marge Gunderson happens upon that wood chipper in Fargo.

Even by the Coens' standards, though, Hail, Caesar! is very, very loose. Its protagonist, if it even has one, is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, playing a riff on a real big studio "fixer" of the period), the man who makes sure all of the problems at Capitol, the fictional film studio at the film's center, simply disappear.

His biggest problem is recovering Baird, but he also has to come up with a way to disguise Johansson's character's pregnancy, figure out what to do with a miscast Hobie, and fend off a pair of twin sister gossip columnists (both played, with the biggest of winks, by Tilda Swinton).

When you step back and think about the story for a second, it mostly evaporates. But where the Coens have often seemed to question power in the past — most famously with the corporate schemers who dot many of their movies — Hail, Caesar! is all about what it means to wield power responsibly.

Thus, Eddie's many encounters with the weirdos on his studio lot are meant to function less as a logical progression of events and more as a series of almost fatherly interactions, where he attempts to put right what's gone wrong, much as a parent might with her child.

Serious: Let's talk about economic philosophy

The Coens have always seasoned their films with philosophical ideas, and Hail, Caesar! is no different. Somewhere deep inside, the movie is a surprisingly thoughtful examination of the strengths and weaknesses of economic systems that benefit either the collective or the individual. It probably comes out on the side of capitalism in the end, but it's clear-eyed enough to know that not everybody benefits from capitalism.

That Hail, Caesar! all but begs to be considered seriously by Marxist critics will seem rather obvious to most viewers. There's one scene, after all, where a bunch of characters discuss the basic tenets of communism — interlaced with jokes, no less.

But the film beautifully balances hopefulness about creating a perfect system that might eventually benefit all of humankind with a kind of weary pessimism about the fact that humans will probably just set about ruining such a system. Again, Baird is the key. He might understand some of what he's taught, but when it comes down to it, he only understands it insofar as it benefits him. In the Coens' world, people are fundamentally selfish — but also fundamentally fascinating and worth trying to understand.

As a result, the end of this movie ties everything up in knots, first seeming like a relatively straightforward denunciation of collectivist economics, then switching over to a satire of individualist systems, before ultimately landing on the idea that Jesus Christ himself was, at the very least, a bit of a socialist.

And then you remember the Coens were raised Jewish and that much of an early scene of the movie is spent joking about the weirdness of the idea of the Holy Trinity. None of it makes sense — but maybe none of it is supposed to.

Silly/Serious: This movie perfectly recreates the world of Hollywood past

Hail Caesar and Scarlett Johansson.
Scarlett Johansson plays a young woman considering her options in Hail, Caesar!

In this interview with Variety, the Coen brothers attribute their aesthetic to watching movies on TV as boys, and the way that the Minneapolis station they watched most often vacillated wildly between the high and the low. That's easy to see in their work, which regularly jumps between thoughtful consideration of the human experience and wild comedic gags without warning.

It's even more pronounced here, as almost every sequence is an elaborate homage to one style of old Hollywood classic or another. Working with two frequent collaborators, cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Carter Burwell, the brothers create pitch-perfect pastiches of the kinds of movies people don't really make anymore.

Yes, that includes Tatum's singing and dancing, Gene Kelly style, but it's also reflected in the drawing room drama Fiennes directs (and attempts to keep on track), or Johansson bursting from beneath the waves in a mermaid tail, or Clooney staring, in awe, at the face of Christ in an old-style epic.

And at every turn, the Coens take the piss out of these ideas, whether it's via a cranky-voiced director mumbling at Clooney to "tremble" as he looks upon Jesus, or in Johansson ripping her mermaid crown off her head and whipping it at a bandleader. Everything seems perfect, until something falls slightly askew.

Maybe, then, Hail, Caesar! is a movie about identity, about the fact that as an actor — as a person — you are asked to be many, many things, to change everything about yourself at a moment's notice. And yet, on some level, that's impossible. Beneath the glitz and grandeur, beneath all of the theories of how the universe operates, you're still just you. Will that ever be enough?

Hail, Caesar! is playing in theaters across the country.