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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 11, 2016

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Hail Caesar!, Orange Glasses, Written in Stone

Ethan and Joel Coen are brothers who write and direct movies together. I have no idea how it is even possible for a film to have two directors, still less how brothers could possibly work together in such close harness; but I think their track shows that at least for those two, no ordinary rules apply.

One of my favorite movies is Hudsucker Proxy -- also Tim Robbins's best performance, in my opinion. And while they've created some films that left me cold, I have friends for whom even my least favorite Coen Brothers movie is the best.

What, then, is Hail Caesar? As a Coen Brothers film, you expect a kind of comedy of humors, people behaving like themselves no matter what the circumstances. There will also be magical events -- sometimes with logical explanations, sometimes without.

Religion is important in many Coen Brothers films, and here is where they are most interesting, even surprising. Hollywood is always happy to depict religious people as fools and hypocrites. Now and then, however, Hollywood remembers that there are hundreds of millions of dollars to be made with a well-made pious movie -- though hardly anyone remembers how to make them. The days of The Robe and Ben-Hur and King of Kings, in which the biggest stars of the day depicted scriptural stories without irony, are long gone.

Then there's this quirky pair who tackle a movie movie -- a movie about movies -- and the movie in question is very much in the tradition of The Robe. Indeed, its visual references to The Robe and Ben-Hur are quite sweet.

At the beginning of the movie, we follow Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who runs a studio in LA but must obey the dictates of the studio head, who contacts him by telephone to throw a monkey wrench in everything. Did our Noel Cowardish high-society drama lose its male lead? Then take singing-cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) and toss him into the part, where he can make the director, Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), insane trying to get a believable performance out of him.

In the midst of all his duties, Mannix has to deal with Hail, Caesar -- the movie within the movie -- about a Roman officer, played by Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who has an encounter with Jesus on the road, where Jesus gives water to officers and slaves alike.

The officer is moved by the mere sight of Jesus, and the scene so closely echoes a famous moment in Ben-Hur that you find yourself -- or, rather, I found myself -- looking for which of the slaves was supposed to be Charlton Heston in the Judah Ben-Hur role.

George Clooney earns his salary in this scene, because he has to show that movie-star Baird Whitlock is a bit of an idiot, prone to chewing scenery (again we think of Charlton Heston's weaker moments); and yet Baird Whitlock is trying to give a good performance and show the religious fervor called for by the script.

So the scene is making fun of actors and bad movies, but it is not making fun of Jesus Christ or of the people who believe in him.

Then, for reasons that only gradually become clear, somebody drugs Baird Whitlock and kidnaps him.

Much of what works best in the film is what happens during Whitlock's time as a hostage, so I'm going to tell you about it. I refuse to call it a spoiler because it's not like "the psychiatrist is dead!" moment in Sixth Sense, where it changes the meaning of all that has gone before. It's just ... what happens next. But if you don't want to know, start skimming or skipping.

For grownups, though, who don't think a movie is spoiled by knowing the story (yes, at the end of Pride & Prejudice, Darcy and Elizabeth marry. Get over it [and I don't care what happens in Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, because really, why was it made?]), I will tell you that Whitlock wakes up in a gorgeous mansion in a secluded cove on a California beach.

Surrounding him are a bunch of disgruntled, soft-bodied, middle-aged men who turn out to be writers. Not just any writers, though. They are all committed Communists who meet together to share tips and success stories about slipping the Communist message into Hollywood movies.

Now, because the movie is set in the early 1950s, this is a bit anachronistic. There really were groups of writers and other artists who met together as true-believer Communists, but they were most active during the Depression, before and during World War II.

This is the fact that people who mock the "Communist menace" try to conceal: These American Communist groups really did take their orders from Moscow. When Stalin was anti-Fascist, as during the Spanish Civil War, then the dutiful American Communists were also anti-Fascist, although you couldn't slide a razor blade between the totalitarianism of the Left and the totalitarianism of the Right.

But when Stalin signed his non-aggression pact with Hitler, dividing Poland and returning Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to Russian rule, suddenly these American Communists were ordered to stop opposing Hitler or even saying bad things about him.

This volte-face by Stalin was more than many of the American Communists could stomach. True believers, they despised themselves for having given allegiance to such a cynical group as the Comintern (Communist International).

It was this pre-war association of American Communists that the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated, and it was mostly ex-Communists who had quit the party over such issues who obeyed the law and testified about who had been members of the group.

By the time of the events of Hail Caesar!, the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe and China, as well as Communist revolutionary movements all over the world, had made Communism seem a dire threat to freedom and prosperity everywhere -- because it was -- and American Communists were keeping a very low profile.

What they all had in common was that while they might have been quite sincere in their belief in socialist ideals of equality and the brotherhood of man, they were also dimwitted enough to allow Soviet handlers to manipulate them shamelessly.

Nothing in Hail Caesar! is an attempt to take sides. The Coen Brothers could have made this coterie of frustrated Communist writers into a bunch of clowns, like Kathleen Turner's grandpa's wacko group of UFO believers in Peggy Sue Got Married.

Instead, they are shown as interesting people, torn between wishing to organize writers, actors, and directors against the all-powerful studios -- in other words, the desire to get more money and more control over their art -- and wishing to use their talent to change the hearts and minds of their audience, regardless of whether they got paid or not.

But this fictional group is also dumb enough to kidnap a big movie star.

Where lesser writers would have made the kidnapping sequences funny by making the Communists ridiculous (or by making anti-Communism ridiculous), the Coen brothers instead make kidnapped actor Baird Whitlock so credulous that he becomes a goggle-eyed true believer in the idealistic version of Communism. (No, it's not an intentional comment on Bernie Sanders.)

The Coen brothers seem to be trying to tap into all the traits of the film business during this last gasp of the studio system, before television left the whole movie business in ruins. Eddie Mannix is the one who fends off the scandal hungry gossip columnists (twin sisters played delightfully by Tilda Swinton), pays off police to keep them from arresting the studio's stars for their misdeeds, and tries to cope with the out-of-wedlock pregnancy of the Esther Williams-like star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson).

Along the way, we see a long section from an aquatic movie, with a lot of the old special effects, overhead camera shots, and beaming smiles; and another, even longer section from a sailors-in-New-York movie in which Channing Tatum plays Burt Gurney, the singin'-and-dancin' star whose choreography and performance are meant to remind us of Gene Kelly.

Now, the main weakness in these two sequences is that the empty-eyed Scarlett Johansson isn't Esther Williams, and Channing Tatum isn't Gene Kelly. Tatum does a good job of dancing, mind you, and also plays up the homoerotic aspects of the number; but when he looks into the camera, he just doesn't have Gene Kelly's open warmth and sheer joy in performing.

But that won't bother most audience members. In a way, these extended sequences -- including two scenes from Hail Caesar! -- may serve a lot of younger viewers the way that That's Entertainment! served young moviegoers in my youth.

Since they haven't made movies like these in fifty years or more, people under sixty who see Hail Caesar! may well wonder: Did anybody ever make films like this?

The answer is, yes they did.

What this movie isn't, however, is the kind of brain-dead gross-out comedy that modern audiences have come to expect since the onset of Airplane! and There's Something about Mary and Hangover. You know, anything for a laugh, not a moment to catch a breath, stupidity out the wazoo.

The Coen brothers are not ashamed of absurd gags -- but they also aren't afraid to slow things down and achieve a few moments of realism along the way. They want to deal with serious issues -- not current politics, but philosophical and historical issues -- in a way that rewards intelligent thought.

The more you know about Christian and Jewish theology, the funnier you'll find the scene where Eddie Mannix is trying to get Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Protestant, and Jewish religious leaders to sign off on the depiction of God in Hail Caesar! Having the rabbi at the same table with the Christians is the source of most of the humor. "I don't think you are depicting God, because we Jews don't believe Jesus of Nazareth was God, or the Son of God."

Having been involved myself in several film projects where success absolutely depended on getting religious leaders to sign off on the depiction of Jesus and of the Jewish leaders who opposed him, I know how very nearly impossible such an endeavor can be. Perhaps that added an extra layer of poignancy to the wonderfully absurd scene.

The Coen brothers don't retreat into foolish abandonment of story, as in the deeply disappointing non-ending of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Everything gets wrapped up in satisfying and, yes, surprising ways.

Here are the jewels in this movie. First is the performance of Alden Ehrenreich as cowboy star Hobie Doyle. I've heard some critics say he "steals the movie." Nonsense. You can't steal what is given to you on a plate. The script makes him fantastic at rope tricks, gives him a touching song that is sung while a clown does slapstick in the foreground, has him earnestly try to do whatever director Laurence Laurentz asks, sends him on a date with another movie star in which he acts like himself and wins her over, and then has him realize that he can follow a guy with a suitcase and find out exactly where Baird Whitlock is being held hostage.

Ehrenreich does a splendid job of all these things -- though I'm quite sure his rope tricks, as well as his spaghetti tricks, have a lot of help from computer graphics, and I'm hoping that his physical stunts also had some help from wire work. The whole burden of showing us why westerns and singing cowboy stars were so huge throughout the 1950s is on his shoulders, and he bears the burden wonderfully well. But ... not a theft. A gift.

The real climax of the movie, though -- one of the best climaxes I've seen in a Coen brothers film -- comes after Baird Whitlock comes back to the studio to finish Hail Caesar! His big scene is a climactic speech at the foot of the cross, where the Roman soldier he's playing delivers a speech about what meeting Jesus of Nazareth meant to him. (Scriptural basis: The centurion who says, "Truly this was the Son of God" in Matthew 27:54.)

Here's how the Coen brothers handle such a moment in the midst of a comedy: They play the scene absolutely straight. Baird Whitlock, having recently been converted to Communism (and then unconverted by Eddie Mannix), now brings a new genuineness to the role. No more over-acting. Whitlock (and therefore Clooney) does a wonderful job of making this pious speech not just realistic but quite moving.

The camera shows us members of the cast and crew watching Whitlock's performance in awe, genuinely touched by what he says, because this film is set in a time when most Americans -- including many in Hollywood -- were openly religious and knew their Bible.

And it is not faked. We were also moved, there in the audience in the theater.

Though, because it's a Coen brothers comedy, Baird Whitlock forgets the very last word of his speech, which means he'll have to do the whole speech over again. So we're brought back to Earth. But not in a way that makes the Christian message seem ridiculous; quite the contrary, the Coen brothers allow the feelings of true believers to be real, and this movie treats those believers with respect.

I have never understood why good actors keep returning to do films with Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, or other big-name directors who usually upstage their own actors and leave many an actor to flounder with a badly written part that they don't understand.

But I understand why actors return to the Coen brothers, because whether the film is a huge hit or not, they get to do wonderful things in really smart yet funny scripts, and they give some of the best performances of their careers.

Case in point: Jonah Hill as a fix-it guy named Joseph Silverman. It's a tiny part, but in his few minutes on screen, you come to love him -- and believe me, how his little subplot works out is delightful.

Is Hail Caesar! worth leaving your home, going to the theater, and seeing the show? From the promotions, it's hard to tell what the movie even is. The Roman and Christian stuff doesn't take up very much of the movie at all; it's a movie about Hollywood, not about Jesus and the Romans.

Let's just say that if your idea of comedy includes Ed Helms pulling out his own tooth, Ben Stiller getting the beans above the frank, Sean Young pretending to be an ex-NFL football player with a tuck, or Will Ferrell, ever, then any Coen brothers film is probably going to seem too slow-moving, too intellectual, and too lacking in gags.

I've been hearing from some diehard Coen brothers fans that this isn't their best. But since these critics all seem to love the Coen brothers movies I like least (I can't watch more than two minutes at of a time of The Big Lebowski), I'm obviously the kind of Coen brothers fan for whom Hail Caesar! is one of their best.

I'm glad I saw Hail Caesar! I recommend it to my friends. It doesn't have any nudity or bad language -- though, true to its 1950s roots, everybody smokes. It has a good story, clearly told. It's smart.

Will I spend the rest of my life quoting it, the way I do with Hudsucker Proxy? ("You know. For kids.") Probably not. But movies don't have to set off quote-storms in order to be good.

I haven't even mentioned the framing plot -- Eddie Mannix's own story. It takes up only a few minutes of screen time. He's being recruited to work for Lockheed -- to make real things, airplanes, instead of putting up with all the nonsense of his hyper-demanding Hollywood job. He'd make good money and get home in time to see the kids.

In other words, it's the perfect job for a good family man. And, to tell you the truth, I think he makes the wrong choice. And yet his choice is understandable -- because helping the magicians make the magic isn't a bad way to spend your career. As long as you're willing to pay the price.


They're telling us now that the blue light from flat screens -- on televisions, tablets, and phones -- can do weird things to our brains that keep us from falling asleep or sleeping well after we do fall asleep.

For the past couple of years I've suffered from progressively worsening insomnia. Those blue-light screens can't be the cause, because it's only for the past six months or so that I've done a lot of latenight Facebooking stuff, but ... when I learned (from Consumer Reports) about their highest-rated orange glasses to counteract the blue light, I bought them and gave them a try.

Consumer Reports does systematic studies. I'm just one guy. But using Honeywell's Uvex Safety Eyewear (the SCT Orange version) over my reading glasses when I'm using my tablet just before falling asleep has been a big help.

Before using them, I had a very hard time staying asleep. My sleep was too light -- anything would wake me up, and then I couldn't get back to sleep, leaving me staggeringly weary all the next day.

The Uvex SCT Orange glasses fit comfortably over my prescription glasses and shut out any blue light coming from the sides as well -- and the result is that while it's not a cure-all (I still have crippling insomnia and can't restore my circadian rhythms), I sleep more soundly and feel far more rested. I can also get back to sleep more easily after waking briefly.

So that's a yes from me.


I love books about language, and Written in Stone: A Journey through the Stone Age and the Origins of Modern Language, by Christopher Stevens, looked very good.

It turned out not to be, alas. It's as if he got hold of a dictionary of Proto-Indo-European words and then claimed these were the origin of every word that somehow resembles them.

Real linguists who work in this area have pointed out serious flaws in his book, with the result that I really can't recommend Written in Stone because so much of it is not just wrong, but wrong-headed. It's methodologically flawed. (For a fuller review, check out http://eclecticlight.co/2015/03/12/book-review-written-in-stone-by-christopher-stevens/

Still, I had to bring this up because Christopher Stevens offers my favorite explanation of the American term "OK." I grew up hearing the extravagant and unbelievable explanations of "OK" as an abbreviation of "Oll Korrect," from the era when spelling was just settling down and everybody was trying to learn to spell.

Or from "Old Kinderhook," a nickname for Martin Van Buren.

But along with all the old nonsense, "OK" may have come from Scottish immigrants to America, whose way of saying an emphatic yes was "Och aye." That is, "aye" meant "yes," and "och" meant "oh." Thus, "Oh yes!" became "Och aye!" which was imitated by others as "OK."

I have no idea if that's true, and it has nothing to do with Proto-Indo-European, but it's the most sensible and believable explanation of "OK" that I've heard so far.

Watch it on Youtube
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