That Francis Ford Coppola, hired to direct "The Cotton Club" only five weeks before shooting began, was able to come up with a movie at all is somewhat astonishing. On a set fraught with crisis, Coppola somehow kept a bead on his artistic purpose -- in Napoleon's time, he'd have been a famous field general. That he ended up with a movie packed with bravura style, and fun as well, is a feat that leaves you enraptured.

The action skitters in and around the Harlem nightclub that gives the movie its name. Famous in the '20s and '30s as a favorite watering hole of the hoity-toity, the Cotton Club was run by white gangsters for white patrons entertained by black performers. This arrangement comes to epitomize Coppola's central theme: blacks imprisoned by whites, and whites sucked into a corrupt power structure whose every exit is sealed. In "The Cotton Club," society is fate.

The hero, a white cornet player named Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere), has the good and bad fortune to save the life of bootlegger Dutch Schultz (James Remar). Willy-nilly, Dixie's friendship with Dutch provides entree for his brother Vincent (Nicolas Cage) to graduate from hooligan to racketeer; it also earns him unsought employment as the look-but-don't-touch companion of Dutch's mistress, a carefree chorine named "Vera, as in very very" (Diane Lane). Dixie doesn't like playing the eunuch any more than he likes the underworld (he's an Artist), but the only way out lies in attaching himself to another mobster, Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins), who, along with his chum Frenchy Demange (Fred Gwynne), runs the Cotton Club.

Backstage, the performers dance through a parallel plot. Sandman Williams (Gregory Hines) is a dancer driven to stardom, even if doing a solo means leaving his brother and dance partner (Maurice Hines) behind; his girlfriend, the light-skinned Lila (Lonette McKee), is similarly driven, so much so that she pretends to be white so she can escape the Cotton Club and play Broadway.

Obviously, such an intricate tale can't be told in a movie slightly longer than two hours; so Coppola and his cowriter, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Kennedy, making a virtue of necessity, have starved the script till the characters are nothing more than their entrances and exits. A conventional story line, for Coppola, is the tie that binds. Instead, he depends on theme, mood, symmetries of structure, and jazzy style to give "The Cotton Club" its unity. While the parallel between the dual tales of competing brothers (the Williamses, the Dwyers), is never developed dramatically, its formal perfection works in the movie like a balance wheel. Similarly, Coppola never makes Dwyer's tribulations narratively convincing -- he's convincing on the level of metaphor.

Time passes in the movie through breathtaking collages, as "1929" and "1930" slide across the screen in big Art Deco numerals, while headlines spin and machine guns flash and piles of coins diminish in time-lapse photography (it's the Depression). Even the violence is lyrical, though horrifying -- after Schultz murders an enemy with a carving knife, in a brilliantly executed montage, a drop of blood courses its way down Vera's face like a tear. When she looks up, she sees that the blood has dripped down from an opulent cut-glass chandelier.

"The Cotton Club" draws its mood from the '20s, though it's less the '20s that roared than the '20s of Man Ray's surrealist photographs and Bertolt Brecht's music hall cynicism (the score, by John Barry, bears the influence of Brecht's collaborator, Kurt Weill). But the brio of the entertainment harks back to an earlier time. "The Cotton Club" is structured in the smorgasbord style of vaudeville -- a little singing, a little dancing, a little comedy, a little drama. It reunites the stars of the triumphant Ellington revue, "Sophisticated Ladies," and there are few treats equal to just watching the Hines brothers and Charles (Honi) Coles hoofing away. Coppola photographs them with an unusually becalmed camera; when he cuts away, it's to close-ups of their feet -- he gets us inside the mechanics of tap dancing. The beautiful Lonette McKee brings her luscious voice to old Arlen and Koehler numbers such as "Ill Wind" and "Stormy Weather"; the movie's filled to the brim with Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway music that leaves you humming and whistling on your way up the aisle.

"Cotton Club" is studded with fine performances by the members of what has evolved into Coppola's stock company. Lane brings an engaging childlike insouciance to Vera; Cage artfully uses his few moments to sketch a brawny, violent thug; Allen Garfield plays Schultz's nutty sidekick, Abbadabba Berman, as a kind of deranged accountant; and Tom Waits lends his detached, muttering style to his role as the club's emcee -- he always seems to be listening to some private tune.

The humor of "Cotton Club" comes from Hoskins and Gwynne, who play together like two itinerant, straw-hatted comedians. Hoskins plays Owney Madden as an overfed ferret with a delicious, gurgling laugh; he's a stocky Mutt to Gwynne's Jeff, the mountainous, glowering Frenchy Demange. For these bootlegging buddies, the secret to successful gangsterism lies in show biz aplomb. Kennedy's fine dialogue replicates the apothegmatic, burred edge of his Albany novels: Vera tells Dwyer, "You sounded like Gabriel," and he replies, "I play the cornet. Gabriel plays the sax." Bored with making "The Godfather" again, Coppola spoofs gangster style -- Remar plays Schultz with a put-upon snarl that evokes Don Rickles. And Julian Beck, as Schultz's bodyguard, is so self-seriously chilling, he's funny -- his performance feels like ice cubes tossed down your shirt by some practical joker.

Coppola and Kennedy spoof their star, too. With his preening style and flat, Slavic features, Gere swallows up scenes the way the Russian tundra swallows up armies. So "Cotton Club" has Gere's character go to Hollywood, where the studio's verdict on his screen test is: "The kid stinks. He can't act." Indeed.

It's the kind of inside joke that you expect in an art film. In the way it deemphasizes its script and consciously undercuts its star, "Cotton Club" adventurously questions the formulas of Hollywood; its success in doing so without a hint of boredom or pretension augurs a whole new way of making movies. It's the most entertaining art film of the year, the kind of movie you can't help smiling along with. "The Cotton Club," opening today at area theaters, is rated R for violence and sexual situations.