Dazzling 'Hudsucker Proxy' is a delightful echo of old-time flicks

April 08, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"The Hudsucker Proxy" is really the Capra proxy. It's a parody of -- and tribute to -- those Frank Capra populist fables of common men triumphing over the powers of Big Eastern corruption, such as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" or "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town."

But it's not straight nostalgia: The film has enough trademark Coen Brothers weirdness to it to give it a life beyond mere reiteration of what has vanished. It's as if those zany guys -- "Barton Fink" was their last epic of industrial-strength strangeness -- took a number of Capra themes (and themes from Preston Sturges as well as visual motifs from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis"), ran them through the Trashmasher of their twisted imaginations (aided by another weird boy, Sam Raimi of "Darkman" and "Evil Dead" fame), and reconfigured them in the most provocatively odd ways. Quaint it ain't.

For one thing, the movie feels somewhat unstuck in time. It's formally set in the year 1958 on the cusp of turning into 1959, but the characters, attitudes, clothes and designs have a late-'30s feel to them. There's no TV (there was plenty of TV in 1958!). There's no Richard Nixon (there was plenty of Richard Nixon in 1958!). Even the cars are '30s streamline, rather than the fin-spangled, chrome-jawed, two-toned, 7-miles-per-gallon sharks of Decade Cinq. It's as if the screenwriters -- the Coen brothers and Raimi -- were mixing sensual experiences from their first encounter with Capra's work, which they would have seen in the late-night, greenish glow of the TV ('30s movies seen and felt in the late '50s), presumably on a bellyful of TV dinner while lying on the wall-to-wall carpeting of a suburban split level.

The Coens, of course, love the artificial. Their work -- from the brilliant "Blood Simple" on through more problematic projects such as "Barton Fink" -- have reveled in the sheer movieness of being movies.

But in the past, their reliance on earlier forms seemed to, at times, make the movies more like plastic Wham-O gimmicks -- Hula-Hoop and FRISBEE movies: kind of fun, but with emotions so muted or obscure they didn't register on the human radar screen. By contrast, this one manages that hardest of stunts: its stylizations are world-class, yet underneath all the trick photography enough of story and heart peep through to give your glands a goose.

In the Jimmy Stewart role is another string bean, the galumphing, graceless Tim Robbins. In fact, the Coens get continual comic energy out of the mismatch between Robbins' beau ideal of himself as heroic businessman vs. his desperately awkward body language. A big bag of muscleless goofiness, Robbins' Norville Barnes, fresh out of Muncie College of Business, gets a job in the hellish mailroom of the Hudsucker Industries building, in a town that can only be called Old Jack City: a New York dominated by art moderne skyscrapers in whose high cockpits, amid the wispy clouds, the pilots of industry fly toward higher profitability while the proles below scurry in anonymous misery.

But on this day, Old Man Hudsucker himself has taken the Big Dive: Using the boardroom table as his springboard, he's done a 44-story cannonball onto the street below. There's panic, there's worry, there's anxiety -- not because the beloved founder is now turkey tetrazzini on the sidewalks of New York, but because in 30 days his 80 percent share of company stock will be sold to . . . gasp! . . . John Q. Public.

Then right-hand man and ace louse Sid Mussberger (Paul Newman) has a brainstorm. Hire an idiot to be president, drive the cost of the stock down, and the board members can buy it themselves and take over the company. They need an idiot.

Enter, stage right, in a mailroom smock, idiot.

Overwhelmed by his luck, Norville quickly takes to the Executive Suite life, unaware of the degree to which he's being gulled by the Machiavellian Sid. But there's a news chick on the case too.

The movie really takes off when Jennifer Jason Leigh's Amy Archer saunters in. Fast-talking, quasi-sophisticated, tougher than nails, she's all the gal-Fridays and Flaxy Martins and Kitty Foyles melted into one meta-doll, from the seams of her stockings to the perfect Cupid's bow of her lipstick to the way she keeps slapping men. She's Jean Arthur, Roz Russell and the young Kate Hepburn rolled into one. Loved that accent: It re-creates the finishing school honk that undercut the tones of the first generation of talkie actresses, and Leigh supplies a whole vocabulary of hand and body language to make Amy seem both powerful and oddly poignant at once.

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