THE filmmaking career of Joel and Ethan Coen has had plenty of ups and downs, from the critical success of ``Blood Simple'' and ``Raising Arizona'' to the failure of ``Miller's Crossing'' at the box office. But one fact stands out: These talented brothers have more fun with cinema than anyone else around.
Their new picture, ``The Hudsucker Proxy,'' is an excellent case in point. Set in a fairy-tale version of New York in the 1950s, it blends fable, fantasy, and nostalgia into an entertainment so smooth that the wildest implausibilities of plot and character don't slow it down for a second. At once a screwball comedy, a sardonic romance, and a cheerfully phony history of the Hula Hoop, it's nothing if not ambitious. Yet it's never too busy to poke fun at its own goofy logic, or to leave that logic completely behind and enter the rarefied realm of pure comic imagination.
The hero of the tale is Norville Barnes, a young Midwesterner who's eager to apply his business-school education to Manhattan's corporate world. Hired by the mighty Hudsucker Industries, he starts plugging away in the mail room while dreaming of the moment when he'll spring his first brilliant idea on President Hudsucker and skyrocket to the executive suite.
Little does he know that President Hudsucker has just ended his own career by leaping from the 44th floor, and that the board of directors wants to protect its power by discouraging new investors from purchasing the late executive's stock. Their plan: to install a foolish nonentity as the company's new chief, thus confusing Wall Street and disguising the huge profit potential of the business. Their patsy: none other than the innocent Norville.
In outline, this plot sounds more like melodrama than farce. Ditto for the main subplot, about a tough-talking newspaperwoman who romances Norville in order to spy on him and expose his empty-headedness for all to see.
It's true that Hollywood cranked out zillions of business-world dramas between the 1930s and the '50s with story lines and character types very much like these, and the hokey seriousness of those pictures is exactly what the Coen brothers aim to demolish with their affectionate but acerbic wit. ``The Hudsucker Proxy'' is to Hollywood melodrama what Norville is to the corporate world: hard to take seriously at first, but smarter than its straight-faced competition and just as savvy about looking after its own interests.
If the spirit of any single filmmaker hovers over ``The Hudsucker Proxy,'' it's that of Frank Capra, whose most popular movies - one thinks of ``It's a Wonderful Life'' and ``Meet John Doe'' in particular - have a similar ability to mix dewy-eyed optimism with thinly masked anguish, and a similar willingness to steer away from realism in order to score an emotional or ideological point. While the Coens lack Capra's resonance as a mythmaker, they avoid the inconsistency and opportunism that dog his films, and at times they surpass Capra as outrageous visual comedians.
What keeps this movie short of first-class status are some miscalculations in its writing and acting. The subplot about the hard-boiled reporter goes on much too long, stretching its ironies perilously thin and pushing the performances into needless repetition.
In other scenes, too, the acting is less varied than it ought to be, even in a film based on caricatures. Tim Robbins succeeds as Norville by virtue of sheer energy, but Jennifer Jason Leigh has no idea how to modulate her wisecracking character, and even the great Paul Newman is more cartoonish than credible as Hudsucker's crafty board chairman.
``The Hudsucker Proxy'' is less brilliant than the Coen brothers' best movie, ``Barton Fink,'' because of these problems and also because it's less persistent in pursuing its most inventive impulses. This relative conservatism is probably a wise commercial decision, given the difficulties of marketing a surrealistic comedy-drama like ``Barton Fink,'' but it's disappointing for those of us who value the Coens precisely for their audacious approach to cinematic style.
Still, the new comedy has moments of great humor and terrific visual appeal. It's a solid achievement for Joel Coen, who directed; Ethan Coen, who produced; Sam Raimi, who wrote the screenplay with the brothers; Roger Deakins, still one of the most gifted cinematographers in the movie world; and their many collaborators - especially Charles Durning, whose portrayal of president Hudsucker is one of the movie's most hilarious assets.
* ``The Hudsucker Proxy'' has a PG rating. It contains occasional vulgar language and bits of morbid humor.