Hail, Caesar! (2016)

The latest film from the Coen brothers was actually the result of an idea brewing way back in 2005, intended to complete what star George Clooney called his “idiot trilogy,” including his previous Coen efforts O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty. Whatever changes have occurred in the script since then, I don’t think there’s any doubt that in Hail, Caesar!, Clooney’s Baird Whitlock could (and should) be considered an nothing less than an idiot.

That probably sounds harsh as a description, but it should be noted that the Coens seem to have a real affection for the characters they’ve created in this film—including Baird Whitlock. Admittedly, not everyone in the film is especially agile-minded. Many are consumed with their own projects and lack the ability to empathize with others.

Standing out from the pack is one Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio executive tasked with keeping a host of cinematic plates spinning—a stuffy, high-minded drama, a singing cowboy western (with a director that looks suspiciously like John Ford), and a couple of energetic musicals. The film opens with Mannix in a confessional, seeking absolution for lying to his wife about cigarette smoking. It seems a small thing, and that’s just the point: Mannix is conscientious when it comes to his responsibilities to and relationships with others.

Indeed, this opening scene bestows on Mannix a religious bearing. That the film returns Mannix to the confessional in its final minutes, forming a bookend with the earlier visit, only serves to undergird the identification. As the film plays out with Mannix in the midst of every narrative thread, it gradually becomes clear that the Coens have fashioned this studio head a priest of the secular realm.

First thing every morning, Mannix calls a “higher power” (New York) on the phone to report on the business at hand. He then spends his days mediating between prickly directors and overly sensitive or entitled actors. He makes sacrifices to cover the sins of his people. And he seeks to bring encouragement, guidance, and vision to his flock of misfits and idiots. All the while, none of it is appreciated. None lauded. It’s simply expected that he will be there, someone to rely upon when disobedience and sin seem ready to undermine this society-in-miniature.

And yet, I cannot help but wonder whether the Coens have laced their film with a strong dose of irony. For while the overarching purpose of Mannix’ priestly character serves to align religion and film—suggesting inherent significance for the latter through the connection with the former—the fact that the movie studio (as portrayed in the film) is undoubtedly filled with misfits and idiots seems to raise for the Coens a light-heartedly asked, but nonetheless important question: How significant can film be with this cast of clowns running the operation?

Such a question cuts back the other way as well: How significant can the church be with its own cast of clowns running the operation? I suspect the Coens are exactly right in linking religion and film for the way their respective stories can elevate the human condition. And while I don’t expect that the church or film art is going away anytime soon, I do expect that their lasting contributions to the world will be connected to the degree which they are able to bring humanity into contact with beauty, goodness, and truth.

A Serious Man (2009)

“I haven’t done anything.” So goes the constant refrain of Larry Gropnik, the protagonist of the most recent film from Joel and Ethan Coen—A Serious Man. To the outsider, Larry looks like the perfect candidate for what constitutes a serious man. He works as a physics professor at a small college, drives a non-descript car, dresses conservatively, works late into the night, and has a son preparing for his bar-mitzvah.

While everything seems to be going along nicely for Larry at first, he eventually becomes a human punching bag throughout the film. He’s not a recipient of physical violence, but an onslaught of tragedies and pressures that he can’t seem to make sense of. First his wife wants a divorce. Then her lover wants to befriend Larry. There’s also a dispute with a neighbor, a car accident, a disgruntled student, and a delinquent brother—not to mention a TV antenna constantly in need of adjustment. Larry, like the Old Testament figure of Job, can’t seem to figure out what’s going on in his life. Though unlike Job, Larry has clearly brought some of his problems on himself.

Larry seeks out three rabbis for assistance (much like Job’s three friends), each of the rabbis offering different guidance. The first, and youngest, seems to think Larry suffers from a problem of perspective. If he could just see his problems in a new light, they would stop being problems. The second seems to think Larry should just get over his problems and live his life. After telling a mystifying story that Larry takes to mean he should be helping others, the rabbi unhelpfully offers: “couldn’t hurt.” The third and final rabbi, the oldest and wisest, won’t even see Larry. But when his son comes to the man at his bar-mitzvah, the old rabbi ultimately tells him to “be a good boy.”

It is this simple advice that Larry has needed, but not received throughout the film. Frustrated by the lack of answers, and feeling like he hasn’t deserved all these trials (“I haven’t done anything!”), Larry eventually breaks down and actually does something. However, what he does is less important than what it seems to indicate, and what the film seems to be aiming at on a larger scale: a full-scale critique of contemporary Jewish (or more broadly, religious) life. The religion in this film is one informed by tradition and ritual, but one that remains completely distanced from the day to day lives of its proponents. The religion on display has long since died on the vine, and the film portrays its withering corpse in all its broken glory.

At the end of the Old Testament book of Job, after the titular character has conversed with his friends for chapter upon chapter about what is going on in Job’s life, Job receives a visit from God Himself in a whirlwind. But rather than offer Job answers, God asks only questions, leaving Job speechless and humbled. Job eventually receives a merciful, rather than a judgmental, response from God because Job was a righteous man. He took his position as a believer seriously.

At every turn Larry eschews his religious tradition in favor of inaction or worse—evil action. Job suffered more intensely than Larry, yet bore it well. He found mercy in the whirlwind. Larry suffered less intensely than Job and bore it poorly, missing out on ample opportunities to ease or end much of his suffering, and even compounding his own trials with poor choices. What will Larry find when the whirlwind visits him?