Despite its lushly shimmering sets and costumes, The Hudsucker Proxy is cold and businesslike at heart. Actually, the problem with this latest offering from the gifted Coen brothers (director Joel and producer Ethan) is that it has no heart. Instead it is a methodical dissection of the populist comedies made by Frank Capra and Preston Sturges in the '30s and '40s.
The setting here is an Oz-like New York City in 1958, where a midwestern galoot (Robbins) arrives hoping to make it big with his invention, the hula hoop. He is plucked almost immediately from the mailroom of the giant Hudsucker Industries and named president, the dupe in a stock manipulation scheme cooked up by greedy board members. Smelling a story, a hotshot reporter (Leigh) gets herself hired as Robbins's secretary. She, of course, falls in love with him, just as Jean Arthur did with Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Barbara Stanwyck did with Cooper in Meet John Doe, both movies from which Hudsucker steals shamelessly.
The goings-on here matter not a whit, since the Coens so patently don't care about their characters. Robbins is appealing but sweats to stir up the froth. Leigh, an actress who has shown real comic flair elsewhere, is way sour, bashing through every scene as if doing a bad imitation of Katharine Hepburn circa Bringing Up Baby. And Newman, as the board's ringleader, seems at sea, attempting to play a character in a movie concerned only with archetypes. (PG)