The Coen brothers, makers of the star-studded “Hail, Caesar!” in theaters now, have shown they’re not afraid to make Christian faith a significant part of their films.
One of their previous hits, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” featured stirring gospel music, a character who turns his life around after finding Jesus and a baptism scene.
Unfortunately, it also contains a traveling Bible salesman who’s really a crook and an obnoxious amount of foul language – so you need to realize it’s going to be a mixed bag.
“Hail, Caesar!” is also a mixed bag, despite a crystal clear gospel presentation that would make “God’s Not Dead” proud. And unfortunately, the movie is nowhere near as good as “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
The film takes us back to a movie studio in the 1950s, the days of Cecil B. DeMille, “Ben-Hur” and “The Ten Commandments.” Capital Pictures is in the middle of making another biblical epic – titled, naturally, “Hail, Caesar!” – when the film’s star is suddenly kidnapped for ransom. It’s then up to the studio fix-it man to keep the cameras rolling and find the star so the movie can wrap in time.
The modern “Hail, Caesar!” is aided by an all-star collection of Hollywood A-listers. George Clooney lends his charismatic charm as the kidnapped star, and Ralph Fiennes is uproariously funny as the frustrated director Laurence Laurentz. Also making brief appearances are Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum and Tilda Swinton. Josh Brolin plays the largest role and main character as the studio fixer.
The movie is beautifully shot and costumed and transports the viewer back to a golden age of Hollywood. It’s absolutely lovely to watch. The storyline lampoons everything Hollywood – from movie stars and gossip columnists to the communist controversy and the very making of biblical epics in the first place.
There are a couple of scenes, including one where Fiennes tries to turn a cowboys-and-Indians movie star into a refined leading man, that are very funny.
Unfortunately, those funny moments are way too few and far between. Frankly, though pretty, the movie is boring. Not a little. A lot of boring.
It doesn’t help that most of the A-list stars are used as little more than cameos, quickly on the screen and quickly gone without really tying together. It’s also difficult to connect with the protagonist. The hero turns out to be a pretty decent man, but we get introduced to him in one of his ugly moments, so his whole story arc is confusing – not a heroic tale, nor a redemptive one. Perhaps people in Hollywood could relate to this character, but the rest of us don’t know him and aren’t given a reason to really care.
If Hollywood is going to make fun of itself, it can’t be an inside joke. It needs to go over the top, so the rest of us can laugh, too.
And speaking of making fun, it’s hard to know whether this movie is genuine in its many depictions of faith, or if Christianity is the butt of a joke.
On one hand, the protagonist is seen in moments of genuine prayer, and it’s the words of his priest, “God wants us to do what’s right,” that help him make a major decision in his life. There’s also a scene where another Catholic priest plainly spells out the divinity of Christ and the meaning of His atoning death. During a scene of filming at Calvary, a Roman soldier testifies to the love of Christ, the truth in His words and the meaning of His death for our sin.
But on the other hand, the priest’s presentation of the gospel is in a scene where clergy of different faiths have been brought on as consultants for filming the biblical epic, and his profession quickly dissolves into a theological debate and bickering that trivializes and seems to mock the whole message.
And again, when the Roman soldier proclaims the love of Christ upon the cross, he accidentally forgets a line, and the whole scene turns into a joke – in part because it’s obvious the actor playing the soldier doesn’t really believe what he’s saying.
Are the Coen brothers intentionally mocking Christianity? Or are they merely depicting the funny foibles of filming biblical epics? Giving Christianity an unusual spotlight or undue derision?
Like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” I’m inclined to give the film the benefit of the doubt. For the most part, it’s positive. Yet … considering how dull “Hail, Caesar!” is, I’m not sure it’s worth taking the time to figure out.
- “Hail, Caesar!” rated PG-13, contains fewer than 20 total obscenities and profanities, and with only a couple of exceptions, these are mild and unobtrusive.
- The movie has no significant romantic storyline and no nudity outside of a few Greek statues. There is, however, some blatantly intentional cleavage and a handful of lines with strong innuendo. The movie contains a few references to homosexuality, including a dance number where men briefly bump and grind (as a joke).
- There’s also very little violence in the movie, the worst being a couple of scenes where the fix-it man slaps a wayward movie star across the face. The kidnapping is done by drugging the victim’s drink. A couple of scenes being filmed on set include a Western shootout and Roman soldiers whipping slaves, but these are portrayed in 1950s style, with no real injury or gore.
- The movie has no overt occult references, but contains dozens of references to Christianity, as we watch various shoots from the biblical epic. The movie opens on a crucifix, a character makes multiple trips to the confessional and is seen praying in earnest. By far, most of the depictions of Christianity are positive, but it also becomes the butt of a joke in a few instances.