The Coen brothers love America
Hail Caesar is one of the most pro-American movies you'll ever see. If you haven't seen it, you should. This is the best Coen production since The Big Lebowski.
It's the story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a tough-as-nails studio executive who deals with multiple crises every day. It's 1951, and he's surrounded by lunatics and fools, and only his manly devotion to his job allows him to survive. The board of Lockheed wants him to quit and run their company – a nice, easy job for a man with his talents. He's a devout Catholic, who goes to confession when he breaks his vow to quit smoking. As he ponders his decision, he says a rosary.
The principal crisis is the kidnapping of his big star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who's in the middle of playing a Roman officer who encounters Christ at a well, where he's giving water to thirsty slaves. The kidnappers are communist screenwriters who feel they've been cheated by the studios. They're depicted as complete morons, who manage to convert Whitlock to their cause by spouting nonsensical Marxist claptrap.
The Coen brothers grew up as secular Jews in suburban Minnesota in the '60s. I think they were happy with their lives growing up, and it shows in their sympathetic portrayal of characters like Marge Gunderson (played by Frances McDormand) in Fargo. There's one scene in Hail Caesar that called for an especially delicate touch. Whitlock, playing the Roman centurion, stands beneath Christ on the cross and tells a fellow officer of his earlier encounter with him. Whitlock's a fool, and he screws up his lines, to good comic effect. But when he talks of the effect Jesus Christ had on him, there's no detectable irony. Eddie Mannix wants his movie to be inspirational, and no irony is involved.
I'm giving away the plot here, and if you're going to see it, you might want to stop reading. There are so many scenes that I found gut-bustingly hilarious that I don't have room for them all. One of the very best involves snooty British director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) and his efforts to coach Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a sweet but dimwitted singing cowboy. It alone is worth the price of admission. Another gem is a meeting Mannix has with a priest, a rabbi, and two Protestant ministers. He wants them to tell him the plot of his movie will be acceptable to people of all faiths. As the priest rambles on about Christ's dual nature as both a man and God, the rabbi gets restless, drumming his fingers. You've got to see it to appreciate it.
The climax comes when Hobie retrieves Whitlock and returns him to the studio. He spouts the Marxist gobbledygook he's learned from the commies to Mannix, who listens intently, his hand covering his mouth. Finally, he's had enough, and he gets up and mercilessly bitch-slaps Whitlock into his senses. He explains how the world really works, then sends him back to the set, with instructions to act like a damn movie star.
The next day at the studio, up to his ears in alligators as always, Mannix tells his secretary to call Lockheed and tell them he's not coming. His priest confessor has told him to follow his heart, and his heart is in the movie business. So are the Coens'.