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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)