By Owen Gleiberman
March 11, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST
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Watching The Hudsucker Proxy, the latest cinematic gizmo from the Coen brothers (Raising Arizona, Barton Fink), I arrived at the same pesky question I end up pondering during all their movies: How can a filmmaking team be this smart and clever, this restlessly, vivaciously imaginative — and this soulless? As a director, Joel Coen (his brother Ethan produces, and the two collaborate on scripts) is such a flimflam wizard of visual tomfoolery that he never fails to hook me — for a while. At the beginning of The Hudsucker Proxy, there’s a delightful sequence in which Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), a legendary New York business tycoon, stands up at a board meeting, offers a contemptuous glare to his white-haired executives, and proceeds to scuttle down the boardroom table and crash through the window, plunging 44 floors to his death.

What makes the sequence zing is the combination of Joel Coen’s deadpan timing and the voluptuous wit of his images: the camera sweeping lovingly over the gleaming two-tone table, Hudsucker taking a luxurious pause to light his huge cigar, the fatal plunge itself (imagine Vertigo starring Wile E. Coyote), the way the whole kamikaze incident seems so bizarrely…unmotivated. When the Coen brothers are executing a scene like this, you can feel their impish pleasure, and the episode has a kick. At the same time, it betrays their abiding weakness: These filmmakers are so driven to showcase their precocious formal ingenuity that they end up reducing human experience to a glib, misanthropic cartoon.

The Coen brothers are postmodern brats, playfully sophisticated pop cannibals who’ve spent their career taking stylized genres and stylizing them further, putting quote marks around the intricate conventions of mass entertainment. Set near the end of 1958, The Hudsucker Proxy is their satirical pastiche of Hollywood’s wisecracking populist fairy tales. The premise is right out of Preston Sturges or Frank Capra: After Hudsucker kills himself, a wide-eyed bumbler, Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), is plucked from the mailroom and installed in his place, with the idea that the company’s stock will then fall low enough to allow the board to snap it up. Instead, Norville the homegrown dreamer undercuts the plan: He invents the Hula Hoop. In addition, the movie features a tough-cookie news reporter heroine (Jennifer Jason Leigh) straight out of a ’30s newspaper comedy and enough babbly, overwrought dialogue to make the Clifford Odets of Sweet Smell of Success sound like a writer of haiku.

When the motormouth characters in Sturges or Capra spewed words at each other, there was an innocence, an all-American zest, to their daffy patter. They spoke in the breathless rhythms of a century speeding up faster than anyone knew how to deal with. (The guy who got the girl was the one who could keep up.) In The Hudsucker Proxy, the rapid-fire wordplay serves no organic purpose other than to remind you of those earlier movies. The dialogue is a stunt, a laborious feat of engineering, and it turns the actors into human ticker-tape machines.

As Sidney J. Mussburger, the Hudsucker executive who comes up with the idea of creating a puppet president, Paul Newman is so dry and crusty he’s perversely winning. But Tim Robbins never musters the boyish impudence he’s trying for; there’s too much dark-eyed calculation in him. And I’m afraid that Jennifer Jason Leigh is a disaster. She does a meticulous imitation of Katharine Hepburn’s aristocratic vowels, only without a hint of Hepburn’s effusiveness, her saucy joy. Leigh looks so pouty and rigid that you can’t connect the speech to the face. It’s like watching a replicant do screwball comedy.

The sequence showcasing the rise of the Hula Hoop craze (it’s done as a mock ’50s newsreel) is giddy fun; it breaks up the monotony of the film’s Old Hollywood hermetism. And there’s no denying that The Hudsucker Proxy unfolds on one eye-popping set after another: gleaming Art Deco suites, a room overflowing with candy-colored Hula Hoops, the gear-crammed interior of a giant public clock. The rich, burnished images suggest that the Coens want to make magic — movie poetry. Yet if that’s the case, why do they keep cramming those gorgeous frames with ill-tempered studio-system caricatures whose primary purpose seems to be to yell into the camera? For all its technical bravado, The Hudsucker Proxy is an unsettling contradiction, a ”whimsical” fable made by acerbic control freaks. It’s a balloon that won’t fly. C

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