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)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition
    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?