Because Joel and Ethan Coen are such a couple of precocious sophomores, it's not hard to find them annoying, or to wish to debunk them. The trouble is, there's no denying that they always put on a great show. Even when they aren't sure what they're doing, as with Barton Fink, or when they're doing something that's too easy for them, as with Miller's Crossing, they still bring a confident facility to their filmmaking that seems almost prodigal. You leave their films thinking, "Gee, what if there were grown-ups who had that kind of talent?"

But perhaps there are subjects that bright, sophomore wiseacres do better than grown-ups. Maybe that's why the Coens' latest, The Hudsucker Proxy, a stylized homage/satire of the sentimental, populist comedies of Frank Capra, is such an immensely entertaining film. The Coens (Joel directed, Ethan produced and the two of them co-wrote the script with Sam Raimi) have managed both the homage and the satire without the one canceling the other out. The Hudsucker Proxy recasts the Hula-Hoop fad as a Horatio Alger fantasy. Monolithic, New York-based conglomerate Hudsucker Industries is thrown into a panic when, in 1958, the founder and president, Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), takes a swan dive out of the boardroom window. His fellow board members learn that he left no will and thus that his shares will be made available for sale to the public with the new year. Appalled at the prospect of common folk taking ownership of the company, the late Hudsucker's Machiavellian sidekick, Sidney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman), hatches a plan to appoint an imbecile as titular president, thus driving down stock prices and allowing the board to scarf up the controlling interest. The proxy the board selects is Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), a goodhearted, wide-eyed dimwit from the mailroom. Norville has a dream, which he repeatedly explains by proudly holding up a slip of paper with a plain circle drawn on it and saying, "You know . . . for kids!" At last the perplexed execs grasp his vision--a brightly colored "extruded plastic dingus" for swinging around the hips, with a little sand inside "to add a pleasing sound." Certain that this will wreck public confidence in Hudsucker Industries once and for all, the board approves Norville's idea, and the rest is retail history, Coen-style.

Which means, this time, old-movie style. Frank Capra is the primary source--the plot draws most heavily on Meet John Doe, with elements of It's a Wonderful Life--although the rapid-fire acting style and the frenetic atmosphere take off on the work of Howard Hawks, especially His Girl Friday, and the dialogue is indebted to Ben Hecht, Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges. This gives a very slick, 1940s tone to a movie set in the late 50s. And that raises an interesting question, which perhaps some sociologist or historian could answer for me: Why does the sensibility of American films made in the 40s, a decade marked by national unity against common enemies, seem so much less paranoid and mistrustful of individualism than that of most American films of the comparatively secure 50s? If The Hudsucker Proxy had been a product of the decade in which it's set--a world in which beatniks were perceived as amusing exotics--Norville might have been seen as an upstart, and the boardroom vultures would surely have been presented as public benefactors. The movie reaches its high point with a centerpiece montage in which we see Hudsucker Industries tool up to produce and market the hoops. They hit the stores, fail initially and then get accidentally goosed into success by one marvelous kid (Arthur Bridges) when his schoolmates see him fooling around with one. It's such a sweetly hilarious scene--and the music, by Carter Burwell (a composer who's been flirting with writing a great score for some years), is particularly fine here--that the film never completely recovers from its passing. Though they still have a trick or two up their sleeves, the Coens don't call it quits a second too soon.

Newman, one of our all-time-best leading men, has been trying his hand at character parts for the last few years. He was good as Earl Long in Blaze, respectable though miscast as General Leslie Groves in the lousy Fat Man and Little Boy and strong (and perfectly cast) as Evan Connell's Mr. Bridge in the dull Mr. and Mrs. Bridge. His part here isn't rich, but Newman gets dry, nasty laughs out of lines like, "We want a moron, not a cipher, otherwise you'd have the job." Mussburger is a fine querulous creep, not more than half-interested even in his own schemes.

The real leads, though, are Robbins, whose best scenes come early, when he pulls some amazingly rubber-faced mugging, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is smashing. She plays a stock character (another unaccountably progressive one) from 40s films--the tough-talking woman reporter who sweeps into the editor's office, parks it on his desk and musses his hair while he pretends to bawl her out. Leigh borrows the persona and look from Barbara Stanwyck, the voice from Katharine Hepburn, but though Leigh's broadly stylized, she transcends imitation. It's her best work so far--she embodies the old-movie spirit the Coens are after.

When we watch American films made from the late 30s to the early 60s, we may often find them naive and quaint, but it would be a mistake to imagine that these qualities represented the people who made these films. The fact is that the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood was, above all, the golden age of slickness. With the exception of Steven Spielberg and the Coens themselves, it would be hard to find current directors as skilled in what might be called cinematic shorthand as such old-timers as Capra, Hawks, Raoul Walsh or Michael Curtiz, although many current directors far exceed all of those men as artists.

Perhaps that's what the Coens are getting at here--that Capra was sharp and calculating, albeit benignly so; that he was no Jimmy Stewart Everyman. But if so, this film is an affectionate deconstruction, down to its movie-reflexive title (Newman once played Hud; Robbins, here, is his sucker). It's possible to enjoy Hudsucker either as a gentle spoof, or, at face value, as a sentimental tale, in a way that it wouldn't be if the Coens were trying to savage Capra, as every brilliant but sour foot of Barton Fink was devoted to savaging the Odets-style WPA playwright. That film said that any artist who believed that his work might have social significance must obviously be a fool, if not a villain--it was like a defense of their whole careers.

Even in this new film, the Coens don't neglect to subject Norville to a variety of humiliations, which provides a few dreary longueurs toward the end of the film. But the buoyant, optimistic feel of that aforementioned central montage is what one takes from The Hudsucker Proxy. The Coens seem to allow, with mild irony, that a dreamer's dopey notions might at least provide society with something fun--you know . . . for kids. Maybe the Coens are growing up a little, after all.


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