The offbeat works of Joel and Ethan Coen are unquestionably an acquired taste, but they are a taste I acquired quite early - in fact, immediately upon seeing their first film, ``Blood Simple.''
The Coens' followup movies - ``Raising Arizona,'' ``Miller's Crossing'' and ``Barton Fink'' - each tackling a different genre and each with a unique sense of irony, were also appealing. But only ``Raising Arizona'' was accepted by mainstream moviegoers, becoming their greatest commercial success to date.
So keep that in mind as you read this and take the 31/2-star recommendation for ``The Hudsucker Proxy'' with a grain of salt, especially if goofball, eccentric movies are not exactly your cup of tea.
This wild-eyed, sentimental, old-fashioned comedy is definitely parked in Frank Capra-Preston Sturges-Howard Hawks territory, but it is also imbued throughout with the Coens' own brand of genre-tweaking and sly, winking humor.
Early in the film - which is set in a fantasy-style 1950s New York City - we get a taste of the film's uniqueness, with what is arguably the most cinematic suicide ever recorded on film. Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning) begins a strange dance on the boardroom table as his company's assets are being chronicled, then he runs down the table, leaps out the umpteenth-floor window (there's a stolid argument between two board members as to just how high it is) and literally dives to the pavement below.
Hudsucker's right-hand man, Sidney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman), immediately concocts a plan to drive down the value of the company's stock, reasoning that when it hits bottom, the board can take over and ultimately reap a huge profit. The plan is simple: Replace Hudsucker with an innocent dolt who knows nothing about business and let him nearly ruin the company before they regain control.
That dolt comes along in the form of guileless hick Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), fresh off the bus from Muncie, Ind. He's the new guy in Hudsucker's mailroom when he inadvertently proves his naivete to Mussburger, and before he knows what's happening, he's president of the company.
Soon, he presents the board with a simple product he's been thinking about, and the board is sure this silly little item will be just the thing to send the company into a nosedive. Instead, of course, it makes millions!
Meanwhile, a hardbitten reporter named Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh, doing a slight Katharine Hepburn voice with Rosalind Russell delivery) decides to go undercover and find out the truth behind Norville Barnes.
Despite the familiarity of that plot, nothing about ``The Hudsucker Proxy'' is predictable. Even when you think you have the next plot twist figured out, the complications thrown in are handled in a startlingly original manner.
Perhaps the most striking aspects of all this, however, are the cinematography (by Roger Deakins) and the 1930s art deco set design (by Dennis Gassner), which enhances this 1950s setting with some truly eye-popping visuals. In fact, next year's Oscar for set design might as well be engraved right now.1 comment on this story
The performances here are all first-rate, with Robbins bringing to mind a young Danny Kaye. And Newman is perfectly cast - against type - growling and chomping on cigars as he lays out his evil machinations. Leigh is also delightful, as are a number of supporting players, most notably Durning.
The films that ``Hudsucker'' brings most immediately to mind are Capra's ``Meet John Doe,'' ``Mr. Deeds Goes to Town'' and ``It's a Wonderful Life,'' along with the rapid-fire dialogue style of Hawks' ``His Girl Friday'' for Leigh's character. And the plot owes something to Mel Brooks' ``The Producers,'' though removed from the show-biz setting. (Not to mention ``How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.'')
But there's no denying that ``Hudsucker'' is an original work in terms of vision, wacky sensibility and wry dialogue and perfectly in keeping with the Coens' other movies.
Whether general audiences will take to it in the same way they did ``Raising Arizona'' is questionable. But I was enchanted and entranced, and I can't wait to see it again.