'The Hudsucker Proxy' Stands in for Real Satire

Coen Brothers Muddle Potential Jewel


The Hudsucker Proxy

directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

starring Tim Robbins, Paul Newman

and Jennifer Jason Leigh

now playing at local theaters

Some projects are better left unfinished, especially when they die as miserably as "The Hudsucker Proxy" does. For all the great moments of the first half, the only good things about the second half of this hapless flick is the bounty comparisons it begs. For instance, unlike the fresh pot of coffee you will need to revive yourself when the credits roll, this ill-conceived attempt from director Joel and Ethan Coen tastes more like the four day-old black sludge forgotten on the kitchen counter--bitter, could and best thrown out.

The reason this experience tastes so bitter is that it betrays the real promise with which it beings. "Proxy" comes on strong with great caricature studies of board meetings and fat cat executives in pin stripes. A "Brazil"-esque mythicized urban landscape with the austerity of Orwell's 1984 completes the pretensions of a grand satire on corporate America. But somewhere along the way, the Coens run out of jabs at Wall Street and turn instead to punning silver screen sappy romance. Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who once talked fast and moved like a journalists with a mission, is reduced to pathetic dependence on the love of Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), the idiot and CEO proxy she is sent to investigate.

The inexplicable decision deflates the tensions and, frankly, the fun, of this incoherent effort. The script lacks plot to begin with, but shifting focus from hit material makes "Proxy" just plain suck.

Norville Barnes is an egregiously stupid heartland boy hoping to land a job in the Big Apple, but the only place the requires no experience is Hudsucker (bloodsucker) Industries. No sooner does he start work in the mail room than panic is visited upon the board of directors. Hudsucker's CEO and chief stockholder kills himself from 44 floors up, leaving his half share of Hudsucker stock for sale and possible public ownership. De facto chairman Sydney Mussberger (Paul Newman) moves to elect a complete imbecile president so Wall Street will panic, and the stock will plunge. Barnes proves himself more than worthy, but when his idiocy becomes golden, Mussberger and the board are forced to plot his fall from power by manipulating the brilliant but friendless journalist spy Archer.

A Pulitzer Prize winner, Archer goes from holding Barnes in utter contempt for his inane renditions of Muncie Business College fight songs, to wanting him for his off-the-cuff stereotypes of 1950's career girls. That stupid remarks just happen to encapsulate her real character is funny for a moment, but no one wants her to be undone by it. Tragically, for the audience as well as for Leigh, Archer never reacquires her edge or her interest. She ends up a poster pin-up waiting for her man to show some courage while cheers him on from backstage. The transformation is sudden, never mind unconvincing, and affected for no better reason that she was seriously in danger of stealing the show.

Not only is Barnes a lame imitation of Tom Hanks' Cinderella rise to success in "Big," it's simply boring. We have seen the stock success scenes from Hollywood so many times they need only be alluded to in freeze frame and we can visualize the rest. There are the tailors and manicurists fussing, next the journalists hounding, and, of course, vapid models fawning. We at least deserve a sign announcing this tour through recycled film footage so we can get popcorn from the lobby before the feature resumes. At times we detect a glimmer of original satire in this sequence, but not much more.

With the life sucked out of the best characters, the Coens set to work on sabotaging the storyline. Connections become more tenuous, and punchy dialogue withers into tired speeches. The rapid pace that helped disguise substantive flaws earlier on falls apart as Barnes' success plummets, and he and Archer face unemployment again. The Coens dwell on the demise as if to make a tragic and appear inevitable, but since this is supposed to be a comedy, no one has the patience for a moving denouement. The Coens drag us through it anyway. They have foreshadowed the final scenes in the opening sequence, and the movie lurches and grinds towards the unwelcome appearance of Barnes on the window ledge high above the street. Like the other executives before him, we have to watch Barnes take his turn at contemplating suicide. It is neither funny nor suspenseful, just one more dull picture we have seen before.

The Coens create highly original takes on the macabre theme of human pavement art but cannot connect them into anything meaningful or entertaining. CEO Waring Hudsucker takes a running start from the end of the long boardroom table to dive through the glass en route to a majestic conclusion. The next executive to try the same meets with plexiglass. Even the closing scenes when Barnes faces death from the 44th floor has its great moments. These are innovative takes on the physical possibilities of office tower suicides, but the Coens set a tone early on they cannot keep up, and the fragmentary vision never comes together.

Tim Robbins fans should wait on his next work lest they be disenchanted with him in "Proxy." Like Robbins' early works, the early scenes of this film are gems, but not reason enough to try this one out. Stay home and rent "Bull Durham" if you want to see Robbins do stupid.