Raiding the Past

On paper, they probably seemed like wonderful ideas. How about a reworking of His Girl Friday, set at a big-city newspaper, but with an ensemble cast full of likable stars? Maybe they could crack a hot story about a couple of teenagers who are being railroaded for murder, huh? Or how about a Preston Sturges-type comedy about a rural moron who arrives in Eisenhower-era New York looking for work and gets sucked into a world of intrigue at a giant corporation? Promising premises A for, respectively, The Paper and The Hudsucker Proxy. But while both have their moments, neither is an across-the-board knockout.

The Hudsucker Proxy stars Tim Robbins as Norville Barnes, a grinning dolt from Muncie, Indiana, who gets a job in the mailroom of New York's Hudsucker Industries just as the company's disturbed founder, Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), goes ape and hurls himself from a 40-story office building window. ("That's 41 stories, counting the mezzanine," says a board member.)

As the late founder's right-hand man, Sidney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman), says, "Waring Hudsucker is abstract art on Madison Avenue." The company needs a new figurehead A preferably one so stupid that he won't interfere with Mussburger's nefarious plan. Clearly, Norville is his man. He hopes the heartland rube's brainless stewardship will drive the value of Hudsucker stock straight into the sewer, where Mussburger and his pals can snap it up for a song. But a couple of complications gum things up: Norville's invention of the hula hoop, which, a la The Producers, unexpectedly becomes a national phenomenon; and a resourceful investigative reporter named Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh, doing a smashing Rosalind Russell impression), who goes undercover at Hudsucker to expose the cabal's scam.

But as always with the Coens, plot is subservient to atmosphere and mood and look. The real stars of this overlong but energetic movie are the photography, the sets, and the special effects, which compress a half-century's worth of gothic gigantism and Art Deco oppressiveness into 90 minutes of screen time. The movie's real theme is how old movies influence the way we imagine the past, and how the clarity and power of those imaginings can make the past seem positively mythic A or at the very least, more interesting than the present.

The titanic offices and factory interiors and ballrooms A as well as the grotto-like restaurants and bars on display (nobody in this movie has a home life) A make even the film's most Machiavellian characters seem hilariously petty. Sidney J. Mussburger might fancy himself the devil incarnate, but when you see him in the context of his airplane-hangar-sized office, he's more like a devilled egg. One piece of tile falling from that 100-foot-high ceiling could squash him. And Hudsucker Industries would quickly learn to get along in his absence. The industrial revolution created this nightmarishly overscaled world A a world that's rapidly approaching the point where it will no longer need human beings at all. Not since Chaplin's Modern Times have conveyor belts and message tubes and huge gears seemed so frightening. Norville survives so effortlessly in their presence precisely because he's too stupid to realize how much danger he's in.

For a decade now, detractors have been saying that the Coen brothers make ornate, passionless, jack-in-the-box movies A that they're more interested in raiding the visual splendors of film history and technique than telling emotionally accessible stories about likeable human beings. Now even the Coens' staunchest defenders are agreeing with this assessment. They've revised their past opinions of the Coens and labeled The Hudsucker Proxy an overbudgeted, underwritten botch A the kind of mistake that can negatively color filmgoers' perceptions of a whole career.

For a number of reasons, this is hooey. First, so many American filmmakers are so profoundly disinterested in developing a consistent style or theme or look (see Ron Howard, for instance) that the very presence of the Coen brothers in your local multiplex is cause for celebration. Second, if fiendishly elaborate, puzzle-box extravaganzas like Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, and Barton Fink A movies that shift and change and deepen with repeated viewings A don't qualify as passionate, then what sorts of films do?

At their best, the Coens' films completely envelop you, transporting you back in time A or more accurately, sideways, into a freakish alternate universe where contemporary ideas collide with old-movie characters and conventions. Even The Hudsucker Proxy A the least unified and most comedically hit-and-miss movie the Coens have yet produced A boasts images that rival the best of Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton, and lines of dialogue so sly ("An expose!" suggests Amy's editor, "J. Edgar Hoover A crimebuster or pantywaist?") and evocative ("On this sad day in 1957, Waring Hudsucker merged with the infinite") that they trounce almost everything else being written for movies today.

Finally, the Coens have never called themselves sentimentalists, and Lord knows they've never wanted to be loved. They're satirists and ironists, adopting a godlike perspective, setting archetypal characters inside gorgeous mazes constructed out of bits and pieces of popular art (film-noir shadows, silent movie slapstick routines, comic-book compositions), and watching them squirm around like ants who would easily devour one another if luck and fate didn't keep mucking up their nasty little plans. If a preference for wit and irony over emotion is proof that an artist is irrelevant, then Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Dorothy Parker, Luis Bu*uel, Salvador Dali, Stanley Kubrick, and the Marx Brothers -- whose acidic, prankish world views echo throughout the Coens' movies -- would have faded from America's collective unconscious long ago.

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