Satan in a Chinese Restaurant

Leave it to a couple of Jewish brothers from middle America to make one of my favorite films about Jesus Christ in a long time. Hail, Caesar! expertly balances a few seemingly antithetical Americanisms here - the cult of Hollywood, and American religious moxie. (Spoiler - they’re not antithetical, turns out!) Plus, Hail, Caesar! is  just a lot of fun for anyone who loves movies, was nourished on Rogers and Hammerstein, Busby Berkeley numbers, or who as a young child secretly wished she’d be kidnapped by one of seven husky brothers and carried on horseback to a snowed-in cabin where she’d soon become a bride. Bless your beautiful hiiiidddde!

So yeah, I guess this isn’t going to so much be a review as much as an ovation for some refreshingly religious American filmmaking. It’s the Coens at their most controlled and fine-tuned, and earns a solid second place after No Country For Old Men, which is, if you ask me, perfect.

Hail, Caesar! is a movie about Movies & God - so if you’re a God-lovin-Mormon whose media diet consists largely of film, and is married to a filmmaker, what’s not to love.

Christ is the “reason for the season” here, as the backdrop of the film is set during production for the sandals epic “Hail, Caesar!” - a movie about a Roman general’s conversion to Jesus Christ.

There’s a big dog and pony show happening during the production of the Jesus Christ movie that involves a lot of set work and hundreds of extras, but the real Christ stuff is happening with studio head Eddie Mannix. (Coen regular Josh Brolin, who just gets better as he ages).

Mannix is by day and night the studio “fixer,” solving the problems of the Hollywood “circus” that he oversees. But he is really the symbolic Christ figure, sorting out the mottled lives of the imperfectly perfect stars he oversees. He is enmeshed in the messy mortality of his characters lives, but he loves them, mess and all.

From the opening scene, the Coens set up this Christ allegory as we see the Son communing with the Father during confession. It’s continued throughout the duration of the film. Mannix talks to his father constantly, for guidance, for advice, to absolve himself of worldly temptations (firstly, nicotine; secondly, job offer).

There are other God moments happening, too. Notably: Mannix literally ransoming a Hollywood golden boy, Mannix chastising an actor for taking the Big Man’s name in vain, the Coens dialogue of not depicting deity on screen, and then intentionally never showing the actor playing Christ, faith in imperfect systems (studio system, communism). There’s more, and it’s purposeful, and many times comical.

The more I’ve thought about Hail, Caesar! since I saw it on opening weekend, the more one thing has come to the forefront. 

The Satan scenes. 

Satan here is sly, a business exec with a job offer - quit your creative pursuits, and take the easy way out. Pick the path of least resistance. Pick comfort over passion and disquiet. I haven’t seen such an authentic Satan archetype since maybe Ned Beatty in Network.

The adversary is a tricky concept and character to depict without heading into caricature land, but I think the Coens nailed it. As Mannix’s world seems to be spinning into a wild chaotic hurricane, Satan shows up and offers a way out. A job. One that sounds stable, easy, and riskless. Mannix’s temptation here is tense. It seems like a no-brainer, a ticket out of the mess and into stability.

It perfectly aligned with a thought I had a few years ago: If the devil can’t convince you to be bad, he’ll convince you to be mediocre.

I’ve felt this temptation, too. There are lots of easy way outs in the way I’ve chosen to live my life. There are lots of career choices, child-related choices, etc. that would seem to make everything easier. However, they’d be wrong choices. They’d omit the passion and the work that’s necessary for me to grow and creatively and spiritual function and even thrive.

And I too, like Mannix, like Christ, and like the Coens, love the mess. I love the make believe of creativity, and I love the utter truth of it. I love the belief in it all. I love believing. Which is why I can’t ultimately be tempted by a slick salesman who’s schilling a life of ease.

And the next time I’m tempted with security and mediocrity, I’m going to look back at those scenes of Satan drinking Mai Tais and symbolically throw that cocktail in his face.

Thanks, Coen bros, for that image and that reminder. And thanks for making one pretty fun, fantastic picture.


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