You have to admire what the Coen brothers have accomplished in “The Hudsucker Proxy,” but actually enjoying their achievement is a little more difficult.
Pristine perfectionists who delight in the craft of filmmaking, director Joel and producer Ethan have come up with a visual extravaganza, a series of gorgeous, technically dazzling set pieces impeccably conceived, designed and photographed. But impressive as all this is, it is great filmmaking only from the wrists down.
For if “The Hudsucker Proxy” is a triumph, it is a zombie one. Too cold, too elegant, too perfect, more an exhibit in a cinema museum than a flesh-and-blood film, “Proxy’s” highly polished surface leaves barely any space for an audience’s emotional connection.
Though set in 1958, “Hudsucker” is intended as an hommage to several different kinds of 1940s films, from fast-talking comedies like the Howard Hawks-directed “His Girl Friday” to the jaunty populism of Frank Capra’s “Meet John Doe” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But this film is so concerned with giving just the right tongue-in-cheek twist to its story line it ends up, to quote a very different 1940s vehicle, “a little cold around the heart.”
It is in fact a kind of perverse tribute to how icily controlled the Coens’ world is that “Hudsucker” persists in remaining uninvolving despite a pair of brash comic performances from stars Tim Robbins and Jennifer Jason Leigh that would have brought life to another film.
Robbins plays Norville Barnes, a recent graduate of the Muncie College of Business Administration who is so boyishly eager to make his mark in commerce that his cheeks literally gleam as he steps out of the bus from Indiana in bustling New York City.
A trusting naif, Norville manages to land a job in the hellacious mailroom of mighty Hudsucker Industries, assuring his co-workers that he has impressive plans for the future involving a mysterious invention intended, he says with a grin, “you know, for kids.”
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Norville, big things are happening higher up. There is a sudden vacancy at the very top of Hudsucker Industries that leaves the company vulnerable. But crafty No. 2 man Sidney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman, trying perhaps too hard) has a plan.
The idea is to install a dunce as CEO, someone guaranteed to drive the stock price down so the board of directors can buy the company for a fraction of what its worth. “I want a Grade-A ding-dong,” Mussburger roars, and, naturally, when Norville wanders up from the mailroom, it’s clear that the appropriate victim has been found.
Though Norville thinks this good fortune is simply his due, others are not so sure, especially the folks at the Manhattan Argus, the kind of newspaper where the reporters call the editor “chief.” “The human angle, that’s what sells papers,” this worthy opines and he assigns his ace reporter, the fast-talking Amy Archer (Leigh), to get the scoop on unsuspecting Norville.
Amy, showing the form that’s already won her a Pulitzer Prize, finagles her way into a job as Norville’s secretary, and soon the Argus is running headlines like “Imbecile Heads Hudsucker.” Naturally Norville is hardly pleased about this and, Amy discovers to her chagrin, she is starting to rethink her attitude toward the big galoot as well.
Sprinkled through this story are great visual set pieces, starting with a gorgeous opening tracking shot over a mock-New York skyline and continuing with that cavernous mailroom and assorted high jinks involving open skyscraper windows. Production designer Dennis Gassner, working with exquisite effects (visual by Michael J. McAlister, mechanical by Peter M. Chesney), has matched if not exceeded the wonders he accomplished with “Barton Fink” and “Bugsy,” both Oscar nominated in the same year.
And even in a brief retelling it is possible to see how much of a kick the Coens (who co-wrote the script with Sam Raimi) get out of fooling around with venerable movie conventions. They love the old dialogue, lines like “Is this guy from Chumpsville?” and “What gives?” and they love the old movie types, like Buzz the gabby elevator operator (Jim True) and Smitty the cynical reporter (Bruce Campbell).
Maybe they love it all too much. Despite the best and often entertaining efforts of Robbins and Leigh, whose zippy comic impersonation of Katharine Hepburn doing Rosalind Russell is extraordinary, there is an air of self-satisfaction about this excessively derivative project that carefully keeps audiences at a distance.
The Coens seem to have learned all the lessons old Hollywood had to teach except the most important one: You gotta have heart.
‘The Hudsucker Proxy’
Tim Robbins: Norville Barnes
Jennifer Jason Leigh: Amy Archer
Paul Newman: Sidney J. Mussburger
Charles Durning: Waring Hudsucker
John Mahoney: Chief
Jim True: Buzz
William Cobbs: Moses
A Silver Pictures production in association with Working Title Films and Polygram Filmed Entertainment, released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Director Joel Coen. Producer Ethan Coen. Executive producers Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan. Screenplay Ethan Coen, Joel Coen and Sam Rami. Cinematographer Roger Deakins. Editor Thom Noble. Costumes Richard Hornung. Music Carter Burwell. Production design Dennis Gassner. Art director Leslie McDonald. Set decorator Nancy Haigh. Set designers Gina Cranham, Tony Fanning, Richard Yanez. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.
MPAA rating: PG, for “mild language and thematic elements.” Times guidelines: It features suicides, both successful and attempted. * Playing at the AMC Century 14, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City Shopping Center. (310) 553-8900.