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‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ (PG)

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 25, 1994

The unfortunately titled "The Hudsucker Proxy" is a movie-buff movie -- if you're often up past your bedtime watching black-and-white flicks, a copy of Leonard Maltin's movie guide at hand, you'll probably go for it.

Another ultra-stylized movie-about-movies by the Cannes-winning Coen Brothers, "Hudsucker" is clever but cold, a heartless mechanical gizmo. The actors, including Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Paul Newman, rattle around tinnily like shiny marbles inside its cavernous sets and hollow script.

Robbins plays babyfaced Norville Barnes, a sweet sap who accidentally becomes head of a huge corporation, Hudsucker Industries. The late founder's majority stock is about to revert to the public, so the Machiavellian board chairman (Newman) hatches a scheme to foment panic -- he'll find a moron to head the company, thus scaring the stockholders, and driving the stock price down so the board can buy it up cheap.

So the green-gilled Robbins rockets from Hudsucker's hellish mailroom to the cavernous penthouse suite overnight. But once on board, he unveils an idiot-savant invention (no big secret -- they show it in the movie posters -- it's the Hula-Hoop!) that makes a fortune for the reluctant company, and makes him an instant celebrity. Soon the finks on the board and in the press are scheming to bring Robbins down, and a fast-talking tabloid reporter (Leigh) poses as his secretary to get the scoop. Naturally, she winds up falling for the sucker.

Clearly enjoying his slapstick turn, Robbins is a prize booby, though he's still too obviously a smart guy playing dumb. Leigh imitates the brittle, staccato style of the '30s and '40s movie heroines, apparently aiming for Hepburn in particular, but her panicky straining quickly becomes tiring. As the big meanie who yanks Robbins's strings, cigar-chomping Newman does a lot of hand-rubbing and harrumphing, but never seems to be in the same movie as everyone else.

Though it's set in 1958, "Hudsucker" is a love letter to the films of the '40s, borrowing the populism of Capra, the screwball sass of Sturges and Hawks and the slapstick of Looney Tunes. There are lots of snappy lines and complicated, precision-timed shtick, but the story is just a cinematic clothesline for all the Coens' virtuosic, genre-savvy set pieces and sight gags. The movie's best sequence is also its sweetest: A runaway Hula-Hoop rolls down the street after a kid like "The Red Balloon"; when he finally, instinctively, virtuosically, figures out what to do with the toy, he starts an after-school stampede to the toy store.

Blow-'em-up producer Joel Silver -- apparently hoping some of the Coens' arty-smarty cachet would rub off on his lowbrow rep -- lavished $25 million on his new pals Joel and Ethan Coen. So the technically perfect "The Hudsucker Proxy" has a dazzling retro-futuristic look, but too little of the human exuberance and charm that made their beloved '40s films so enduring and endearing.

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