FILM REVIEW / Paper over the cracks: It's described as a comedy, but who's getting all the jokes? Adam Mars-Jones on The Hudsucker Proxy

The seed from which they germinated Miller's Crossing, according to the Coen Brothers, was the image of a hat in the woods, blown by the wind. The corresponding seed for The Hudsucker Proxy (PG), an infinitely superior movie, might well have been a piece of newspaper blown along the street, refusing to be abandoned by the man who has just thrown it away, wrapping itself doggedly round his leg. A piece of paper with a circle drawn on it, meaning everything and nothing.

There's a lot of paper about in Hudsucker Proxy: vital documents blow out of windows; people carry around pieces of paper as talismans; there's a whole hellish basement of swirling paper. The hero gets his big chance at promotion when he is chosen to deliver a vital Blue Letter (he forgets); the heroine even works for a paper. The question the film keeps asking, in a way that is oddly insistent in a comedy, is: do marks on paper mean anything? The newspaper blowing on the street seems to have an advert singled out, but we have seen that this so-significant ring was made by the casual impress of a coffee mug. The circle on a piece of paper that means so much to Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) may be a perfect piece of design or a big fat zero. The newspaper stories that the heroine writes are not only worthless but need to be replaced, day by day, to keep the circulation going.

These self-conscious doubts about the value of marks on paper are in considerable contrast to the self-congratulatory tone, typical of a Coen Brothers film - the sense that the audience is being permitted, at a relatively late stage, to admire a dense web of private jokes. Still, being too clever by half seems almost an achievement to be proud of in the Hollywood of True Lies, endless sequels and remakes stretching to the horizon.

The Hudsucker Proxy is the third Coen film with a period setting (in this case, 1958): the projects set in the past now outnumber those set in the present. This isn't the past of America, though, but the past of cinema. The Coens aren't interested in history, only in genre. Setting a film in the past allows them to produce perfectly hermetic entertainments, movies that revel in their distance from any real world.

The new film has been described as a screwball comedy, but the Brothers' earlier Raising Arizona, despite its contemporary setting, had a better claim to that description. The Hudsucker Proxy drinks from many wells. Its basic plot, of a conspiracy to produce something worthless so as to profit further down the line, is a paraphrase of The Producers, but there are elements of any number of other movies or types of movie: the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story, the hard-boiled newspaper melodrama (at one point, the editor's face is so close to the employee at whom he's shouting that their noses touch). The Brothers even pastiche themselves, with a shot that is straight out of Raising Arizona, the camera zooming up to a screaming mouth at the top of a ladder.

The Coens' style of pastiche invariably drains the originals of any serious purpose. The numerous versions of The Front Page, for instance, (Hudsucker draws most fully on Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday) were amply cynical but also foregrounded worries about capital punishment and the power of the press - issues anything but dead today. The Coen Brothers are too cruel to care. Their depiction of the miserable working conditions at Hudsucker Industries, likewise, isn't a satire on capitalism, but so extreme a parody of it as to become strangely abstract. Employees are called to a moment of silence when the chairman kills himself, and then have that reverent moment docked from their pay.

Even Preston Sturges, another clear influence, when he came out against movie-making with a political agenda in Sullivan's Travels, didn't do so as a matter of doctrine. The Coen Brothers' last film, Barton Fink, set out to satirise an engage writer modelled on Clifford Odets, but did the job so excessively that you started rooting for their victim and wondering why the Brothers were quite so up in arms. It was almost as if they felt threatened by the idea of art connecting with the world in any way.

The Hudsucker Proxy works quite well enough most of the time to keep such doubts at bay until after the film is over. Tim Robbins and Paul Newman (as the Machiavellian execuctive who calls Norville in to ruin the company) have the presence and the history to make their mark. Robbins manages to make the hero's roller-coaster IQ - plunging to advance the plot, rising to win our sympathy - just about credible, and he does remarkably well with slapstick (the doom of many an intelligent actor). Newman is good enough to make it seem odd that we're not shown his reaction when his conspiracy begins to fall apart. The Coen Brothers (they collaborate on scripts, when Ethan produces and Joel directs) seem to think in sequences, rather than following characters in their development, and this, for one, is an occasion when it shows.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is less lucky as the hard- bitten reporter. She flaps her arms around a lot and talks very, very fast, but her performance remains a composite impersonation rather than an energetic thing in its own right. Her character seems to be made up of eight parts Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, two parts Katharine Hepburn for the see-here-my-man vowels, plus a dash of Bette Davis's neurotic hauteur. When she begins to have doubts about exposing someone she's starting to like, it's not like a person in two minds, but a machine in two gears.

Towards the end, the film shows signs of wanting to turn into a fairy tale without losing any of its cynicism. It takes not one but two distinct supernatural interventions to produce the happy ending, and there is no obligation to take it seriously, but there is something uncomfortable about introducing, as the only black character in a film set before the civil rights movement, an archetypal Uncle Tom with a voice out of the Brer Rabbit stories. It is possible to create something emotionally true out of second-hand ingredients, in fact that's what Hollywood does, but it isn't the Coen Brothers' strong point.

What makes The Hudsucker Proxy their most enjoyable film since Raising Arizona is the sense that not everything in it was laid down on these storyboards. This is a supremely designed film (production designer Dennis Gassner), and some of the design is almost oppresively perfect. The boardroom table at Hudsucker Industries, for instance, has a yellow stripe down it that broadens towards the window. When the camera looks down the stripe from its broadest point, the effect is of parallel lines, but when we see it from the chairman's angle of vision, it is like a yellow brick road leading off into the void.

Other sets have a magnificence that may have been partly unforeseen. The vast office behind the company clock, say, has a different atmosphere at different times of day, and the huge second hand sweeping across the window is reflected differently in the polished wall. When Paul Newman abruptly pulls the cigar out of Tim Robbins's mouth, did the Coens' storyboard exactly the way it crumbles, like a rotten rope? There are moments in The Hudsucker Proxy where air and light get into the film, as if by mistake, and for a little while the only film in the Brothers' head is the one they are making.

'The Hudsucker Proxy' opens in London tomorrow. For details, see page 24

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls


The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk
    Nepal earthquake: One man's desperate escape from Everest base camp after the disaster

    Escape from Everest base camp

    Nick Talbot was sitting in his tent when the tsunami of snow and rock hit. He was lucky to live, unlike his climbing partner just feet away...
    Adopting high fibre diet could dramatically cut risk of bowel cancer, says study

    What happened when 20 Americans swapped diets with 20 Africans?

    Innovative study in the US produces remarkable results
    Blake Lively and 'The Age of Adaline': Gossip Girl comes
of age

    Gossip girl comes of age

    Blake Lively is best known for playing an affluent teenager. Her role as a woman who is trapped forever at 29 is a greater challenge
    Goat cuisine: Kid meat is coming to Ocado

    Goat cuisine

    It's loved by chefs, ethical, low in fat and delicious. So, will kid meat give lamb a run for its money?
    14 best coat hooks

    Hang on: 14 best coat hooks

    Set the tone for the rest of your house with a stylish and functional coat rack in the hallway
    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?