The Sucker Who Strikes It Rich

The opening scenes of "The Hudsucker Proxy" first pan through the skyscraper valleys of Manhattan, then focus on a faded neon sign on the Hudsucker Corporation's headquarters: "The Future is Now" it proclaims.

For Hudsucker's president Norville Barnes, however, the future looks questionable, as he climbs onto the building's edge.

It is a beguiling opening and the film's plot then unfolds just as irresistibly, offering viewers something between comic opera and comic strip.

Just arrived in the big city from Muncie, Indiana, business school graduate Norville (Tim Robbins) is only able to find work in the Hudsucker mail room. As he is hired, company president Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), despairing over his company's relentless success, commits suicide.

Hudsucker's 44-story plunge sends the company into a tailspin. Hudsucker made no disposition of his controlling share of the company stock, which must be put up for sale by New Year's Day. The company Iago, Sidney Mussburger (Paul Newman), schemes to appoint an obvious idiot as president to drive the company's share price down, enabling the board to gobble them up cheap. Norville is chosen. Norville's rise, however, arouses the suspicions of hard-bitten newswoman Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

It's here that Hudsucker begins to stretch credibility. As with all the Coen Brothers films ("Blood Simple," "Raising Arizona," "Miller's Crossing" and "Barton Fink"), Hudsucker pushes at a perilous point of balance between being a viable, albeit off-beat, universe and genre movie gone awry.

Made in the style of a 1930s Frank Capra film, where simple souls rout city slickers and heavenly messengers save the day, Hudsucker reworks the classic do-gooder genre, much as "Miller's Crossing" reworked the gangster genre. Along the way, the Coen brothers pilfer enough scenes and put in enough half-tone caricatures to make us think we've seen this movie before -- but somehow it wasn't so twisted the first time around.

The danger with references like these, especially when a film is as well done as "The Hudsucker Proxy," is that the movie will touch more memories and elicit more possibilities than it can satisfy. The Coen Brothers even steal from themselves: Hudsucker Industries was the name of the factory where H.I. (Nicholas Cage) worked in "Raising Arizona." Several jokes are recycled from their other movies.

Joel Coen, however, is one of the most creative directors working and both he and brother Ethan know how to make a sly, subtle and serious movie -- in the sense that the film's images last longer than a chewy Milk Dud. Also, the Coen brothers, unlike many of their peers, such as Quentin Tarantino or Oliver Stone, don't live in a relativist world -- their movies have morals and hope.

For the first part of the film, Norville is forever producing a drawing of a circle and hinting that it will be the key to future success. Everyone takes it as another sign that he's an imbecile. But Norville has created the Hula Hoop. In a delicately self-mocking way Norville's great invention becomes the motif for the Coen Brother's recycling job.

The Americom's other offering, "Holy Matrimony," eight people were in attendance. Now, eight people too many in Moscow have seen this film.

Patricia Arquette plays a streetwise woman, Havana, forced to hideout with a colony of Huttites, a religious group similar to the Amish. Hot to find stolen money hidden on their land, Havana ends up marrying a 12-year-old boy. The plot is supposed to be a screwball, slapstick feel-good farce. It misses.

Where the Coen brothers pickpocket from great movies, "Holy Matrimony" -- directed by Leonard "Mr. Spock" Nimoy -- is an outright rip-off.

Playing through April 7, "Holy Matrimony" shows nightly at 7 p.m., followed by "The Hudsucker Proxy" at 9 p.m. Tickets are the ruble equivalent of $7.50. The cinema is in the Radisson Slavjanskaya Hotel. Nearest metro: Kievskaya.