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THE UNKINDEST CUT

The youngish filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen might do well to come out into the light once in a while. As it is, their parochial, stubbornly adolescent view of life seems thrown together entirely from the bits and pieces of the old movies floating around in their heads, cemented by equal parts naivete and nastiness. Like most hobbyists, they define the world by the obsessions of their hobby.

Case in point: The Hudsucker Proxy, the Coens' cynical fantasy about the American Dream and the evils of big business, is a grab bag of references to everything from the big gears in Modern Times to the verbal snap of The Front Page to the long shadows of Metropolis. But it has no soul. Like the Coens' imitation of gangster movies, Miller's Crossing, and their toxic caricature of Hollywood, Barton Fink, the new film is full of surreal visual pranks and sophomoric jokes. But occasional cleverness doesn't compensate for insubstantial satire of substantial matters.

The Coens have Paul Newman, Tim Robbins and a big budget to work with here. But even after five features, the brothers are still smart-alecky teenagers at heart--the Beavis and Butt-head of American moviemaking.

Ostensibly, Hudsucker is the picaresque tale of one Norville Barnes (Robbins), a standard corn-fed rube from Muncie, Indiana, who hits the pavement of big, bad Manhattan in 1958 with stars in his eyes and not much in his head. In Horatio Alger style, Our Hero is sucked into the hellish mail room at big, bad Hudsucker Industries, where he might have remained forever were it not for fate. When the company founder, old Waring Hudsucker (rhymes with "bloodsucker"--get it?) suddenly leaps out a 45th-floor window, no one on the stone-faced board of directors even bats an eye until learning that the company must now go public. That prompts the Machiavelli of the piece, Sidney J. Mussburger (Newman), to cook up a dastardly scheme to keep the stock private and seize power.

Mussburger needs a patsy--an incompetent company president--to provoke fiscal failure at "The Hud," followed by investor panic. What better candidate than some imbecile from the mail room: Norville Barnes.

You know what happens next, of course. While Newman's cackling villain, puffing on his huge cigar, is busy trashing the company, his good-hearted fall guy inadvertently saves it--by inventing the hula hoop. Then Norville, too, is corrupted by corporate power. Ironically, he must be saved by a villainess who's turned, none too convincingly, into a sweetheart.

Clearly, the old comedy team of Marx and Lenin would love this blunt, strangely dated rip on U.S. capitalism. And the Euro-sophisticates at Cannes, who see American culture as a primitive cartoon to begin with, might embrace it with the same enthusiasm they showed for the heavy-handed Barton Fink, with its Hollywood hotel from hell and self-serving, pseudocommunist hero.

Black humor is one thing. Crude, mean-spirited sniping is another. In the process, the Coens remain more interested in reworking old movies than anything else. Their New York skyline is all painted backdrop, the huge, shadowy interiors of the Hudsucker Industries building are straight out of German expressionism and the totalitarian chill comes from 1984. These brass-bound buffs make sure to poison all those sticky Doris Day/Rock Hudson skyscraper romances, and they kick poor old Frank Capra, the democratic sap, right in his overgrown heart with parodies of the averted suicide and the guardian angel from It's a Wonderful Life. This provokes the Coens' most elaborate bit of camera trickery--a dizzying, jumper's-eye view of the pavement rushing upward.

While they're at it, the Coens also savage the swift newspaper movies of the Thirties by casting Jennifer Jason Leigh as a Rosalind Russell newshound type who fast-talks her way into Norville Barnes's new office. Posing as a dumb secretary, reporter Amy Archer tears the business world's nouveau celebrity a new one on page one, then falls for his shnooky charm. But in the end, the Coens still don't allow the audience to care for either character: Just like Barton Fink, with his intellectual pretensions and stubborn delusions, Norville and Amy are, well, unlikable jerks.

Meanwhile, there's scarcely a hint of homage or admiration in the Coens' frantic borrowing from the movie archives: The minute they rip off a piece of genre, they dip it in acid. How postmodern of them, and how condescending. There's never been anything wrong with social satire. On the contrary, it's a deft cleansing force. But the Coen brothers' small-minded instincts seem to lie elsewhere. Whenever these boys come across a Panaflex, their undeniable urge is to throw it at something.

 
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