“Would that it were so simple.”
The Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar is an entertaining look at the old Hollywood Studio System with a load of insider references. (I would love to have a Cliff Notes type of resource to identify all those references.) But like nearly all of their films there is more here than just the good time we have watching it.
Set in the 1951 at Capitol Pictures (the same fictitious studio as in their film Barton Fink), the film spends a day following Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the studio head, as he spends his days and nights dealing with one problem after another: a starlet being taken advantage of by a photographer, the choreograph film extravaganza star (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant but unmarried, rival twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) out for a scoop, a singing cowboy (Alden Erhenreich) who has been pushed into a high society role under an acclaimed director (Ralph Fiennes), and the kidnapping of the star (George Clooney) of a biblical epic (from which the film gets its title) that is nearly done filming. All of this gives the film a chance to look at the various film genres of the day. If you’ve wondered how the Coen Brothers would have made a Gene Kelly dance film or an Esther Williams swimming number, you get a glimpse in Hail, Caesar.
Because Mannix is so good at solving the never ending stream of problems, he is being recruited by Lockheed Corporation. They offer him more money, better hours (he never seems to sleep, and only gets a few moments with his family), he would be working for national security rather than dealing with the crazy Hollywood scene. It seems like a no-brainer, but he is hesitant. A clue as to his reasons might be seen in the way the film is bookended by two trips to confession. This is a daily occurrence for Mannix where he confesses minor sins (like lying to his wife about quitting smoking). He is trying to be a good person, even though he may be skirting some of the morality of the day. When he seeks the priest’s advice about changing jobs, the advice the priest gives him is “God wants us to do what’s right.”
That is very close to the essence of many of the Coen Brothers’ films: what does it mean to be a good person. Among their earlier films that look at that question are Raising Arizona; Fargo; The Hudsucker Proxy; O Brother, Where Art Thou; The Man Who Wasn’t There, and A Serious Man. In these films people do things that may or may not be good. It always seems to come down to that advice from the priest of doing what is right. That is the issue that Mannix faces in everything he does. It is then up to us to decide if he succeeds in being the kind a man he wants to be.