The esteemed film directors, the Coen Brothers, recently released a new film entitled Hail, Caesar. This sample movie review explores the aesthetics, plot, and characters in detail.
Hail Caesar’s entertainment value
The Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar could justifiably be called a movie about movies. As Brody has pointed out:
“the action is set in in Hollywood in the nineteen-fifties and is centered on the doings of a studio fixer named Eddie Mannix;” and given that the Coen Brothers themselves were born in the fifties, a “movie about Hollywood at that time is also about the Coens’ own childhood mythology” (paragraph 1).
The main plot of the movie consists of the filming of a movie entitled “Hail, Caesar!” (that is, a fictional movie within the actual movie of the same name created by the Coen Brothers) on the Hollywood set overseen by Mannix. That film within the film consists of the historical Biblical account of the encounter of a Roman general with Jesus of Nazareth, all the way back during the time of the Gospels.
The lead actor in this film within the film, however, is kidnapped and held for ransom by Communists. Much of the plot of the actual movie (the one made by the Coen Brothers) consists of the efforts of Mannix and others to retrieve the kidnapped actor so that they can proceed to film the climactic scene of the film within the film.
Subplots intertwined in the movie
There are, however, numerous other subplots woven into the film as a whole. For example, there is one such thread that consists of a cowboy action star trying to play a role in a serious film, as well as his romantic entanglements. This thread is connected with the broader plot arc as a whole in that it is actually this character who ultimately proves to be responsible for retrieving the kidnapped actor.
Another subplot consists of that kidnapped actor himself falling in with the circle of Communist intellectuals who kidnapped him in the first place and actually beginning to sympathize with their idea that he is being exploited by the Hollywood industry (Marx and Engels).
Yet another arc has to do with an actress, resembling a classic star such as Ingrid Bergman, who is attempting to avoid a public scandal; and yet another has to do with twin sister reporters who hound Mannix about some apparently dark secret from the past (Tunzelmann) All of these threads are orchestrated by the Coen Brothers in an extremely skillful way.
Comedic representations in Hail, Caesar
Of course, it must be stated here that Hail, Caesar! is, in the end, a very funny movie. Part of the farce emerges from the juxtaposition of the various plot elements that have been mentioned above. At another level, though, there is a certain humor built into the sincerity of what the characters are trying to portray through the film within the film (the conversion of a soldier to Christian faith) versus the irony and apparent triteness of the actions of many of the actual characters themselves.
This is perhaps also a commentary on the nature of Hollywood or even the creative process as such. In order to make a film about the Gospel, the characters in the industry need to worry primarily about money—which, of course, is a concern very far removed from the Gospel itself. Humor is produced by this contradiction, and that sets the broader tone within which the more specific instances of humor within the movie operate.
Critical reception of the Coen’s film
The film Hail, Caesar! by the Coen Brothers has met with several of what could only be called rave reviews. Here is what Orr has written, for example:
“the film convincingly argues the value of filmmaking to a universe of indelible characters who are struggling to understand themselves. It’s a truth they could see if only they had faith. And that, ultimately, is what Hail, Caesar! argues with greater clarity—if not always greater force—than any of the Coens’ previous films. There is no meaning but that which we convince ourselves” (paragraph 7).
This review, like many other reviews of the film, tends to consider Hail, Caesar! in light of the broader context of the directors’ collected works as a whole. Within that context, an important point that emerges is that this latest film by these directors tends to present key themes and concerns that permeate all of their works as well.
Experientially, this has the quality of a kind of epiphany, through which something that was murky in the past now emerges with full clarity. This is surely part of why Hail, Caesar! has made such a strongly positive impression on so many reviewers.
Other reviews, however, have admittedly been more lukewarm in nature. For example, Orr has suggested:
“at first glance, the Coen brothers’ latest movie, Hail, Caesar! seems scarcely a Coens movie at all. Bright and genial, it lacks the cruel edge of many of their comedies…and its moderately haphazard, episodic plotting is a far cry from the clockwork precision typical of their films” (paragraph 1).
In other words, the same aspects of the film that have led some reviewers to see in Hail, Caesar! an epiphany of the spirit of the Coen Brothers has led other reviewers to see the movie as falling short of the greatest of the directors’ works. This difference of judgment may be the result of both a matter of taste on the one hand and different ideas regarding the nature of aesthetics on the other. It will now be worthwhile to consider the aesthetic underpinnings of the film in greater depth.
Hail Caesar’s aesthetics
In general, the films of the Coen Brothers have become known for their black comedy and sense of impending nihilism. The films are also known for their often self-referential nature: they call attention to the very fact that they are in fact films, or make jokes that somehow refer to the real world outside of the universe of the film itself.
This means that it may be appropriate to classify much of the Coen Brothers’ aesthetic as falling within the aesthetic tradition of postmodernism. As Jameson has argued postmodernism is fundamentally characterized by a sense of relativity, irony, and fragmentation, often spiraling into an Albert Camus-type nihilism or the absence of values.
There are so many sensory stimuli present and so many conflicts between different belief systems and worldviews that all of the reality begins to seem like a kind of game, with no real foundations or ultimate truths to speak of. The effect produced by this situation can be highly comic; but at the same time, it can also very depressing, depending on a given person’s values and temperament.
Understanding themes of aesthetic philosophy
In this context, it is worth considering the Coen Brothers’ film Hail, Caesar! in light of the aesthetic philosophy of what Turner has called metamodernism:
“We propose a pragmatic romanticism unhindered by ideological anchorage. Thus, metamodernism shall be defined as the mercurial condition between and beyond irony and sincerity, naivety and knowingness, relativism and truth, optimism and doubt, in pursuit of a plurality of disparity and elusive horizons” (paragraph 8).
To an extent, metamodernism would be a search for sincerity on the far side of irony and values on the far side of nihilism. When reviewers suggest that Hail, Caesar! is not as dark as their other films, then, perhaps what they are suggesting is simply that the Coen Brothers have succeeded in finding a new way forward into a light at the far side of that particular darkness.
The film’s themes of religious beliefs
Indeed, the relativity of Christian ethics and belief systems is a key theme within the Coen Brothers’ film Hail, Caesar! For example, there is the belief system of the Gospel presented through the film within the film; there is the belief system of Communism, presented through the dialogues that the kidnapped actor has with his own kidnappers; and there is the belief system of Hollywood itself, presented through the interactions and values evidenced by the various characters in the actual movie (Ehrlich).
At the bottom of it all, though, Hail, Caesar! would seem to contain a kind of conviction in the fundamental power of the creative imagination to produce meanings out of nothing, and also in the actual reality (or not ironic emptiness) of those created meanings. In order to further explain what is meant by this, it will be worthwhile to turn to a moving scene that can be found near the end of the film.
In summary, the present essay has consisted of a review of the Coen Brothers’ new film, Hail, Caesar! The main point that has emerged here is that in this movie, the Coen Brothers clearly seem to transcend the darkness and nihilism that is present across much of their other works, reaching beyond the postmodern aesthetic and toward a more metamodern notion of the power of sincerity.
This theme is present throughout the film, but it surely reaches its epiphany in the closing scene in which the actor forgets to say the word faith. The main message of Hail, Caesar! is that faith in the creative imagination is capable of producing meaning in an empty world. This is surely a message that all of contemporary culture needs to hear.
Like to review films? Check out this film analysis on Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Blog Image: Hail Caesar! 7 Jan. 2016. Photo Gallery. IMDB.com, Inc. Web. 11 Mar. 2016. http://www.imdb.com/media/rm1948968448/tt0475290?ref_=ttmi_mi_all_art_15.
Brody, Richard. “The Coen Brothers’ Marvelous ‘Hail, Caesar!” New Yorker. 3 Feb. 2016. Web. 11 Mar. 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/the-coen-brothers-marvellous-hail-caesar.
Ehrlich, David. “The Cosmic Purpose of the Film Industry.” Slate. 3 Feb. 2016. Web. 11 Mar. 2016. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2016/02/the_coen_brothers_hail_caesar_reviewed.html.
Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke U P, 1992. Print.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. New York: International Publishers Co., 2014. Print.
Orr, Christopher. “Hail Caesar!: A Confection of Old Hollywood.” The Atlantic. 5 Feb. 2016. Web. 11 Mar. 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/02/hail-caesar-a-confection-of-old-hollywood/433995/.
Tunzelmann, Alex von. “Hail Caesar!: It’s a screwball comedy—who cares what really happened?” Guardian. 11 Mar. 2016. Web. 11 Mar. 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/mar/11/hail-caesar-coen-brothers-eddie-mannix-reel-history-josh-brolin-george-clooney.
Turner, Luke. “Metamodernist Manifesto.” 2011. Web. 11 Mar, 2016. http://www.metamodernism.org.