Phantom Sway

Hail Caesar: A Simmering Black Comedy

The Coen brothers’ latest picture is a Hollywood insider’s delight

Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa - © 2015 - Universal Pictures
Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa – © 2015 – Universal Pictures

Morality-plays in Hollywood are nothing new, even for the Coen brothers; the team that brought us the good-vs-evil of the period Tinseltown masterwork, Barton Fink. Their latest picture, Hail Caesar, is a Hollywood insider’s delight, although you may have to be an old soul (or a habitual TCM watcher), to appreciate some of the blacker comedic moments.

Joel and Ethan Coen have depicted Los Angeles like no other filmmakers ever have. The Big Lebowski poked at and betrayed the Southern California myth better than any other film in memory, bringing us once again on a ride-along with a unwitting moralistic anti-hero; a hero that ends up doing the right thing for himself and all of humanity.

In Hail Caesar, the brothers once again let us in on their obvious struggle with the duality of mankind and one man’s quest for finding the truth for himself and his world. Just like Jeffrey Lebowski, Hail Caesar’s main character, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), is a man who is faced with the difficult challenge of doing the right thing… even if it’s not the easiest course for his life.

Mannix, is in charge of production and at the very aptly-named “Capital Pictures”, and is depicted as a God fearing Catholic. The movie opens with him in the confessional admitting his small sins.

“I lied to my wife; I told her I wouldn’t smoke… I had a cigarette.” But there are much bigger moral decisions ahead for his family, his studio, and the American way.

I went to see this movie in my little hometown theater… far away from the studio lots and the madness of Hollywood. As the closing credits began to roll; an older man across the aisle booed out-loud. His party of four got up complaining about the ticket price and the lack of any ‘good jokes’ in the picture. (I would certainly classify Hail Caesar as a Hollywood insider’s black comedy, so maybe here on the suburban east coast, some of that was missed.) The booer’s wife saw me sitting and staring at the credits.

“Did you like it?” she said as she passed up the aisle.
“Yes, I did. Did you?” I replied.
“Well, I guess it was just a little too slow for us… a little too slow.”

Slow isn’t a word I would choose, simmering would be a better one. The Coen brothers seem to be masters at not caring a damn if you get what they are putting on the screen or not. Barton Fink; I’ll bet ninety-percent of the people that saw that film never realized that (spoiler alert) John Goodman’s character is, yes; the dark side of all duality. (He’s the devil himself.)

But in Hail Caesar, God is displayed and debated throughout the picture, many times with what some would perceive as irreverence. Eddie Mannix holds a humorous conference with four religious leaders who debate Jesus and each other. An actor hanging on a cross (in the film-within-the-film’s crucifixion scene), is asked by an assistant producer what kind of lunch he wants.

Above all, Eddie Mannix must save the day and beat back the godless anti-American evil forces that have kidnapped his major star, (George Clooney), and at the same time make a life-decision that will help him find his way for himself and his family. With his priest’s spiritual guidance, Mannix must choose what is best and what God wants him to do. His epiphany is not one of angels or rays of light; but of a realization that he’s the best at what he does, and that his cover-ups of dirty scandals and righting of the all-too-human lives of the stars and starlets does indeed provide a service—the service of entertaining our great capitalist God-fearing nation.

There’s a message written on the movies studio’s tower at the very end of the picture. I won’t spoil it; but suffice it to say that Mannix is a man who is good at what he does, and that all of us would be just as blessed, if and when we come to terms with and dutifully fill our life’s true purpose.

Ernie Mannix

Ernie Mannix is the author of the critically acclaimed Hollywood novel; Six Devils In The San Fernando Valley. He is also an award-winning film composer and avid model train collector.

1 comment

  • This was helpful. If I am able to see it, I will be able to go with a more correct perspective although not having real insider info myself, because of this interview, I will still enjoy the movie more. I know! Thank you.