“The Hudsucker Proxy” is no doubt one of the most inspired and technically stunning pastiches of old Hollywood pictures ever to come out of the New Hollywood. But a pastiche it remains, as nearly everything in the Coen brothers’ latest and biggest film seems like a wizardly but artificial synthesis, leaving a hole in the middle where some emotion and humanity should be.
In an unlikely pairing of two of America’s most idiosyncratic artists with Joel Silver’s production company, and costing somewhere in the vicinity of $ 40 million, this reps by far the Coens’ biggest commercial roll of the dice. Some top reviews and strong support from Warner Bros. should lead to decent mid-level B.O. upon pic’s release March 11, but its pleasures are a tad esoteric for widespread mainstream acceptance.
The Coens’ one distinct commercial success, “Raising Arizona,” was their one film most recognizably set in a real world inhabited by working-class characters. The rest have taken place in relatively stylized and remote gangster milieu (“Blood Simple,””Miller’s Crossing”) or brilliantly designed capitals of industry (Hollywood in “Barton Fink,” New York here) in which little people are manipulated and buffeted about by the string pullers.
“Hudsucker” plays like a Frank Capra film with a Preston Sturges hero and dialogue direction by Howard Hawks. Startling opening sequence recalls “Meet John Doe” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as a desperate young man prepares to jump from a Manhattan skyscraper at midnight on a snowy New Year’s Eve, 1958-59.
Flash back a few months and the same young man, Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) , literally bright-eyed, bushy-haired and straight off the bus from Muncie, Ind. , is hitting the pavement looking for work. He lands a mailroom job at the enormous Hudsucker Industries just as the successful company’s founder (Charles Durning) less decorously hits the pavement after pirouetting out of the boardroom’s 44th-floor window.
In a pristine example of one of Sturges’ dufus heroes having “greatness thrust upon him,” Norville is installed as the firm’s president by the cigar-chomping Machiavellian executive Sidney J. Mussberger (Paul Newman), who intends to forestall a public takeover by lowering investor confidence, thereby driving down the price of shares and allowing the board to purchase a controlling interest.
Initially, this strategy works well, especially when hot-shot, tough-talking, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), after worming her way into Norville’s confidence and employ, exposes him in an article headlined, Imbecile Heads Hudsucker.
Twisting him around her little finger a hundred times, this dizzyingly clever impostor is Barbara Stanwyck’s “Lady Eve” to Norville’s Henry Fonda in Sturges’ romantic comedy classic, right down to the very verbal seduction. But Norville surprises one and all when, after having baffled everyone with the design of his brainstorm — a simple circle on a piece of paper — he pushes through on his invention “for kids,” the hula hoop.
The huge success of “the dingus” deals an unexpected setback to Mussberger’s scheme, but for him, “business is war,” and it isn’t long before he hatches another plot to bring Norville down for good.
Plotwise, it’s all been done before: The little man goes up against the evil titans of big business (or government) and gets ground up, only to prevail through his own native ingenuity and decency, and the hard-bitten career woman rediscovers her vulnerability through the love of a simple, good-hearted man. The Coens, and their co-screenwriter this time out, Sam Raimi, aren’t saying anything new here.
So it’s the way they say it that commands attention, and for connoisseurs of filmmaking style and technique, “Hudsucker” is a source of constant delight and occasional thrills. The Coens’ approach, in large measure, consists of the fabulous and ornate elaboration of small details and moments; they make entire jaw-dropping sequences out of incidents that other directors would slide right by.
Three such scenes are an outrageous memory flashback in which Mussberger, literally hanging by a thread over the street far below, becomes sure he won’t fall by recalling how his tailor double-stitched his pants; the movement of pneumatic mail capsules through tubes lacing Hudsucker h.q. and, best of all, an incredible episode detailing how the hula hoop became a national sensation.
Throughout, the rhythms of Thom Noble’s editing are extraordinary, the montage on a par with just about any classic examples. This, on top of the orchestration of the other superior elements — Dennis Gassner’s formidable architectural production design, Richard Hornung’s impeccable costume designs that draw upon diverse periods, Roger Deakins’ moody yet vivid cinematography and, perhaps best of all, Carter Burwell’s sumptuously supportive score — must certainly establish the Coens among the most imaginative and supple craftsmen of the cinema.
But rehashes of old movies, no matter how inspired, are almost by definition synthetic, and the fact is that nearly all the characters are constructs rather than human beings with whom the viewer can connect. With his gangly frame and appealing pie face, Robbins calls to mind Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart, but there’s no authentic sweetness or strength underneath all his doltishness to make him seem like a good guy the audience can get behind.
Partly for this reason, no rooting interest develops in the curious romance between Norville and Amy. Leigh skillfully plays the latter with a Katharine Hepburn accent, Rosalind Russell’s rat-a-tat-tat speed in “His Girl Friday” and Stanwyck attitude in a lot of things, but the character never seems quite right.
Beautifully decked out and speaking with a pronounced rasp in his voice, Newman is elegant and mean but never seems entirely, deeply evil in the old Edward Arnold fat-cat role.
William Cobbs has some wonderful moments as the man who runs Hudsucker’s giant clock and knows all, and Peter Gallagher, all too briefly, is uproarious as a Dean Martin-like singer.