The latest dazzler from the Coen brothers – director Joel and producer Ethan – opens on a snowy New Year’s Eve in 1958. Nerdy Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) is about to leap from the 44th floor of the Hudsucker Building, in Manhattan. Just months earlier, Waring Hud-sucker (a priceless Charles Durning), the company’s founder, stood on a boardroom table on the same floor, turned himself into a human bowling ball, crashed through the window and plunged to his death. Grim business? Nah. In mid-plunge, there’s a shot of the old roly-poly waving away pedestrians he doesn’t want to squash. This is a Coen brothers movie, with all the low-comic, high-style turns that implies. You’re in for a twisted treat.
The Hudsucker Proxy had its world premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, in Park City, Utah, where the Coens gave a press conference. Also present was Joel Silver, whose company helped finance the film. Silver is known for the kind of action franchises, from Die Hard to Lethal Weapon, that stand in marked contrast to the way-off-mainstream works of the Coens (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink). But to realize their dream of Hudsucker as a corporate fantasia with intricate sets and elaborate interiors, the Coens needed a fat budget (reportedly $40 million). Silver came to the rescue. At the press conference he was understandably nervous, joshing the brothers to use the words comedy and accessible whenever possible. Silver’s got problems if he expects Hudsucker to be the next Home Alone. Jennifer Jason Leigh, one of the stars of the film, told the press that just prior to shooting, she read a biography of Rosalind Russell in which the actress insisted that big sets and the color brown, a Coen favorite, kill laughs. “What we’ve got here,” deadpanned Joel as Silver turned ashen, “is a big, brown comedy.”
Silver has also got a madcap romp that will tickle your funny bone and knock your eyes out. Dennis Gassner’s production design, Michael McAlister’s visual effects, Richard Hornung’s costumes and Roger Deakins’ cinematography all have an early lock on next year’s Oscars. You’ll be wowed even if you don’t catch all the inside movie references.
Robbins is a marvel, playing Barnes as a small-town rube who suggests a combination of Henry Fonda in Preston Sturges’ Lady Eve and Gary Cooper in Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe. Paul Newman, cast against type, is hilariously nasty as Sidney J. Mussberger, the Iagoish exec who sets up the idiot Norville as Hudsucker’s new president to devalue the stock and gain a controlling interest. It takes the fast-thinking, faster-talking reporter Amy Archer (Leigh) to expose the dastardly plan. Leigh rattles off the clever lines in the script by the Coens and Sam Raimi as if possessed by every classic movie dame from Jean Arthur to Barbara Stanwyck, with Katharine Hepburn’s jutting jaw thrown in for extra bite. Leigh gives a glorious performance, tempering the sass with heart as she falls for the schnook.
It’s dirty pool to give away the film’s surprises. But be ready for the usual complaints about cold Coen calculation. That’s true only if you’re expecting Hall-mark. The Coens run from sentiment, not feeling. Though their affection for character and genre is apparent, the Coens don’t duplicate old movies. They refract the past through a contemporary lens. Tripping through the artifacts of pop culture is the way the Coens like to party. They’re postmodern pied pipers, and the paths they lead us down can be menacing as well as mirthful. As the triumphantly fresh andwitty Hudsucker proves, the Coens make comedies that aren’t afraid of the dark.