My instinct to say of Hail, Caesar! that you will love it if you fall into the enormously specific niche of people who adore Studio Era Hollywood but are still totally okay with making fun of it, and also consider themselves somewhere firmly entrenched in the Leftist-Socialist-Marxist end of the spectrum but are still totally okay with pointing out how totally feckless those philosophies tend to be in practice, and also have a deep fascination with religious doctrine and religious iconography but are generally atheist/agnostic in outlook. But then, every conversation I've had with somebody who isn't exactly the same as me about the movie has ended with them enjoying it every bit as much as I did. So perhaps the real truth here is simply that Joel & Ethan Coen, making their 17th feature film, are extremely good at making extremely interesting movies.

Hail, Caesar! very clearly positions itself as a cinephile's acid-inked Valentine to Hollywood in the 1950s, with a large proportion of its running time given over to note-perfect parodies and re-creations of the movies and surrounding culture prevalent at that time. It's an impressionistic copy more than a documentary one: the most conspicuous historical error is the appearance of widescreen cinematography in 1951, two years ahead of schedule. The most telling is that our protagonist is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), head of physical production at the fictional Capital Pictures (the same studio that figure into the Coens' Barton Fink, set a decade earlier), and an extremely clear analogue for MGM's legendary "fixer" of the same name; but as much as the two men have in common the film's Mannix is a variation on the theme of the real-life Mannix, for there are simply too many small things they don't have in common.

Anyway, I interrupted myself: Hail, Caesar! very clearly positions itself as a collection of Hollywood in-jokes designed for an audience who loves (sometimes ironically) all the same movies that the Coens do, but it is actually a morality play about faith and good works: it is the Coens' Christian movie - specifically Catholic - in much the same way that their damnably under-appreciated A Serious Man was their Jewish movie. With the admitted caveat that the Coens have a fair degree more insight into the lives of Minnesota Jews in the '60s (the exact environment they came from) than they do into Catholics from any time or place, and while A Serious Man comes from some unnervingly exact and precise and accurate place deep in the filmmakers' soul, Hail, Caesar! draws down more from depictions of Catholic practice, doubt, and piety as picked up from the movies.

Which is a pretty fair strategy to adopt in the making of a movie that is, itself, all about what gets shown to us in movies, and how, and why, and to what potentially ideological ends. Mild spoilers for the rest of this paragraph. Herein is a film in which a self-aware pantomime of gay behavior is acted onscreen by a man we'll later learn is homosexual, and in which Communist screenwriters proudly describe the way they smuggle leftist messages into movies by hiding them under so much obfuscation that they don't really count as messages any more. A certain enthusiastic ambivalence about the way that "movie meaning" and "reality" speak past each other is present throughout all of the otherwise quite disconnected, even arbitrary anecdotes speckled throughout the film. Why should its depiction of how Mannix grapples with his faith be any different? And so it is, from the unmistakably leading and clichéd opening scene (in a confessional, that most unsubtle of locations), to its remarkable last shot, in which The Movie Industry is blessed with the light of Heaven; whether ironically or not, I cannot say. Irony and the Coens are like peanut butter and jelly, but the final act of Hail, Caesar! is remarkably, almost creepily sincere, doling out happy endings to characters whether they've earned them or not, and not apparently having any sardonic misgivings about doing so. To wrap up the Serious Man comparison, perhaps the two films' endings are themselves reflective of religious themes: the Jewish film ends with the cruel director-gods dumping one last mean-spirited punishment on their characters, the Christian film ends with senseless love. And, maybe, a false messiah in the form of Mannix, who sacrifices himself to not redeem the sins of a system that will barely survive the decade.

700 words and change in, it's worth mentioning that Hail, Caesar! is a comedy. A tremendously smart and on-point one, if you're up with all of the specific references in the script and the images (I'm sure I missed a few), though I have to imagine that it's still adorably silly even if you're not. It's gratuitously shaggy, with the same basic structure of shuffled-up anecdotes of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the same willful joy in wandering away from its own apparent plot as The Big Lebowski. In principle, the film is about Mannix's difficulties with the production of Capital's biggest production for the upcoming season, Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ (a dual reference to 20th Century-Fox's 1953 The Robe and MGM's 1959 Ben-Hur), starting first with a meeting of four religious leaders to debate whether the film captures the fine points of theology enough to serve as an appropriate panacea to the audience's souls (it's also the snappiest Coen scene since the "Goy's Teeth" sequence from A Serious Man, and hilarious on the level of the masterful opening sequence in Raising Arizona), and then going on to his woes with the production's meaty leading man, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). For one thing, the viper-like twin gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) both have different, equally damaging stories about Whitlock ready to go; for another, the star has just been kidnapped by a Marxist group calling itself The Future.

Like many another Coen film, though, Hail, Caesar! takes its title largely in reference to the thing it's going to keep driving around and forgetting and looking past. Mannix has far more to deal with than just one missing A-list star; there are out-of-wedlock pregnancies to handle, capricious requests from the New York office to shift stars around, and on top of it all, he's weighing a job offer from Lockheed. The result is a shambolic tour of a Hollywood studio in the full swing of production, right in that little window when the Golden Age had died but the corpse had so much built-up momentum that you can't tell from looking at it how nigh the end really is (I'd set the boundaries as the 1948 Paramount case, which ended the star system, and the assault-in-earnest on the Production Code that started ramping up in 1953 with The Moon Is Blue. But if you wanted to say that 1951 itself was the turning point, thanks to the modernist jolt of A Streetcar Named Desire, I wouldn't fight you).

The result is a little tragic, in addition to be so damn fluffy: all that goofiness we see, and Mannix's spiritually restorative appreciation for the little good he's able to do in his job, are coming right at the end; we're watching a star slowly cooling down to white dwarfhood. Not that it keeps the individual moments from being utterly delicious, as the Coens immaculately re-create the aesthetics of '50s Hollywood with their terrific band of regular collaborators: production designer Jess Gonchor, costume designer Mary Zophres, composer Carter Burwell, and of course cinematographer Roger Deakins, shooting on film for probably the last time in his career, and turning out a dewy film in the colors of saltwater taffy, sunny and bleary at the same time. Three musical numbers, an aborted attempt at a drawing room melodrama, and quite an array of stilted Bible epic scenes are both ingenious presents to cinephiles and also exciting, colorful, elaborate pieces of cinematic craftssmanship in their own right, a reminder of how damn good Old Hollywood could be that is also an admission of how damn corny it almost always was.

Credit, too, to an excellent cast, mostly made up of people much too big to have such tiny cameos: Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Alison Pill, Frances McDormand, and Ralph Fiennes all show up for one or two scenes, among others. The far-and-away standout, besides Brolin himself (who plays as similar sharp screwball brittleness mixed with a deep inward-looking moral crisis as the one that Jennifer Jason Leigh gave to the directors in The Hudsucker Proxy), is relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, whose drawling singing cowboy Hobie Doyle is this film's analogue to Marge Gunderson: the obvious rube with a thick accent, who turns out to be the most perceptive and capable member of the whole cast. And if Ehrenrich can't match McDormand's authority in that role (who could?), it's as perfect a star-is-born performance as a movie about Hollywood myth could hope for.

As fuzzy and meandering as this can all obviously get, it would be exceeding unfair to accuse Hail, Caesar! of lacking a very deliberate strategy and structure. It's a study in human brokenness, given the illusion of smooth perfection by the Hollywood machine, which turns chaos into formula, and a slow-boil comedy in which the very shapelessness of jokes is what makes them funny. There's a lot of depth here that I think will take the usual 3-4 viewings that most Coen comedies need before they start yielding up everything, but it's still an intoxicating classical movie lover's pleasure even without that.