The Coen canon reaches a crescendo — or rather a warped inversion of one — in "Hail, Caesar!" when the brothers assemble a quartet of religious leaders from various faiths before Josh Brolin's 1950s movie studio "fixer" Eddie Mannix. The scene plays like a theological joke: the Coen version of a priest and a rabbi walk into a movie studio.
"Does the depiction of Jesus Christ cut the mustard?" asks Mannix, succinctly. His agenda is to gain their approval for Capitol Pictures' latest Bible epic, a sword-and-sandals movie led by the dimwitted star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, looking particularly suited to golden age Hollywood).
The question of how God should be portrayed in the film — a mere quibble amid the madcap machinery of a Hollywood studio — has been put off. An early reel of the movie leaves a tiny gap: "Divine presence to be shot," reads the insert.
It's something like a summation of Joel and Ethan Coen's films: Meaning is a missing frame, human folly is the star and only the dialogue is divine.
"Hail, Caesar!" — part "Barton Fink," part "A Serious Man" — is by no means their best, but it's in some ways the Coens' most essential. Having long made playthings of old movie genres, their romp through vintage Hollywood here is literal. It's a loving satire and merciless ode to moviemaking, where hapless souls serve no higher power than the Hollywood machine.
Their main character is the stone-face, fedora-wearing Mannix, a bruising studio executive who keeps the assembly line humming and its contracted stars out of the gossip pages. He's based on a real and mythic figure of the same name who ruthlessly toiled for Louis B. Mayer's MGM. Brolin's Mannix, though, is a family man, trying to quit smoking and making constant guilt-ridden trips to his church confessional.
Among the tasks before him, per orders from above, is squeezing the Western star and genuine cowboy Hobie Doyle (newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, who steals the movie with some of the best bad actor acting you've ever seen) into "Merrily We Dance," a prestige drama from director Laurence Laurentz (a terrific Ralph Fiennes), whose directions — to give "a mirthless chuckle" or pronounce the line "Would it 'twer so simple" — confound Doyle.
The gulf between on-screen fiction and off-screen reality is comically vast, none more so than when star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), having just shot an elaborate Esther Williams-style aquatic scene, jumps out of the pool, sheds her mermaid fin, lights a cigarette and bitterly retorts in a thick Brooklyn accent: "How am I? Wet."
Moran is having a child with unknown paternity — another fire for Mannix to put out. Twin-sister gossip columnists modeled after Hedda Hopper (both played by Tilda Swinton) are threatening to report something ominous about Baird from an older film of his, "On Wings as Eagles." And aviation giant Lockheed is trying to lure Mannix away from the frivolity of Tinsel Town.
But Mannix's biggest problem is finding Baird, who's been kidnapped from the set by a group of communist screenwriters who call themselves "The Future." It's the main thread of the film, but "Hail, Caesar!" isn't much occupied with main threads; there's too much fun to be had.
Let loose on a 1951 backlot, the Coens find a feast of satire and movie references that come almost too easily to them, and "Hail, Caesar!" slides toward becoming more a parade of inspired parodies than one of their more closely stitched odysseys. But as parade floats go, few could match some of the lengthy sequences of "Hail, Caesar!" like the dance scene, led by Channing Tatum in an "On the Town" riff, where a bar full of sailors sings and dances to "No Dames."
Whatever strong-armed, money-driven system that spawns such gleeful absurdity can't be all bad. So when Mannix, with shades of Ned Beatty in "Network," supplies Baird his come-to-Jesus moment — "You have worth if you serve the picture!" he instructs — there is, naturally, irony. But there's also affection. As suggested by Mannix's rival opportunity (the Lockheed headhunter flashes a picture of an atom bomb test), there are worse things to believe in.
"Hail, Caesar!" a Universal release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America "for moments of mild language, violence and sensuality." Running time: 106 minutes. Three stars out of four.
This story has been corrected to show the name of the studio in the film is Capitol Pictures, not Capital Pictures.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP