The conflict in Joel and Ethan Coen’s new film Hail, Caesar! – and the point of nihilistic derision that most critics will find in their work – is one that involves our capacity to manage the subjective centrum of our existence versus its objective pointlessness. That’s where Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) comes in. The fulcrum to a perpetual series of PR catastrophes, he’s a tightly wound Rolex of a man who attends to the concerns of Capitol Pictures as if handling God’s work. And it’s in confession that we first see Mannix, glancing at his wristwatch to confirm that it’s been just about a day since his last confession – we’ll return to this confession booth once again before the end of the film, where the problems of the day have assembled and accumulated.
Existential insignificance has been a central concern throughout the Coens’ work, most poignantly realized in their previous film, Inside Llewyn Davis. In that film, unrealized artistic potential combated the realities of day-to-day living; of generating an income, of maintaining relationships, platonic and otherwise, of contending with the suicide of a friend and partner. With Inside Llewyn Davis, suffering, as it were, did not yield the expected results. The hardships of a week of hustling assembled and accumulated in such a manner that socked its lead character in the face in what’s representative of capital L, Life laying out the weak.
There’s not so much suffering going on in Hail, Caesar! Set largely on studio back lots and opulent Communist reveries, suffering is managed primarily on the burly shoulders of Mannix. Whether it be dealing with the kidnapping of Capitol Picture’s star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), salvaging a production by pairing cowboy crooner Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) with the dramaturgical sensibilities of director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), figuring out the best publicity action for DeeAnna Moran’s (Scarlett Johansson) yet-to-be-born and out-of-wedlock child, or concealing all of the above from reporters Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton in one of the film’s best recurring gags), Mannix’ business is in managing the insignificant.
This insignificance does not, however, suggest indifference. At the center of the Coens’ lambasting of Hollywood superficiality and excess is a remark on our capacity to ascribe meaning to life, of escaping a cycle of fraudulence and remaining true to oneself. You’ll find this rejection of phoniness in Hobie Doyle and Eddie Mannix, two men who resolutely remain true to themselves even as they face crises of faith and allegiance. For Doyle, his transition from cowboy to socialite is, as it were, complicated. But he remains dedicated to his craft despite the glamour that his position conjures and acts in accordance to what’s expected of him. He epitomizes all that’s genuine and true. It’s no coincidence that it’s Doyle and only Doyle that Mannix confides in about a briefcase full of money and the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock – the two men are of the same faith.
Still, Mannix’ faith is somewhat less steady, as he is confronted by an opportunity that would effectively settle his chaotic schedule and bring order to an untidy regimen. It’s attractive, but you never do get the sense that Mannix could leave his position; we all need a purpose and as Mannix discovers in confession, it may be hard work, but it’s work that needs to be done. He has rationalized his existence that more or less circumvents the perceived inauthenticity of his position. If Catholicism has not offered Mannix the faith he needs to carry on, than the Hollywood system, and more clearly, Capitol, certainly has. If the film’s ultimate contention is to urge its audience to ascribe meaning to life through something, whether it be organized facets of faith or cinema itself, you’ll have to excuse me as I continue to worship at the alter of the brothers Coen.