The Hudsucker Proxy is damn weird. Weird in and of itself, weird that it came into existence, weird for its place in the career of Joel & Ethan Coen. The origins of the film go all the way back to 1981, when Joel had just met Sam Raimi while working as an assistant editor on the latter man's feature directorial debut, The Evil Dead, and the Coens and Raimi quickly hit it off, even going so far as to room together for a time (leading the simply miraculous moment when, for a brief span, the Coen brothers, Raimi, Frances McDormand, and Holly Hunter all lived under the same roof; this is the single house in all of human history I would most like to visit). As part of their early friendship, they discovered how much they all loved '40s Hollywood comedies - the correct opinion to hold, and they decided to collaborate on writing one. Which they did, over the course of a few years, as Raimi helped the brothers make their own debut with Blood Simple in 1984, and then they collaborated on another screenplay for Raimi's second feature, 1985's Crimewave. Which itself felt very much like The Hudsucker Proxy, similarly drawing from '40s and '50s comedy (a bit of live-action slapstick, a whole lot of Looney Tunes) to create a brand new homage that wasn't a pastiche and wasn't a parody, but felt instead like an attempt to make a brand new version of a classic old movie. It even had a location named Hudsucker Prison.

And then, the Coens sat on the screenplay. And sat, and sat. I don't know the reason for sure; I assume it was because Crimewave was a huge flop with a torturous production where Raimi had to fight the money men constantly (and often lost), and they wanted to wait until they could realise the screenplay's massive vision without the same misery. At any rate, they made a second feature in 1987, Raising Arizona, and then Miller's Crossing in 1990, and Barton Fink in 1991. And while none of these were very big hits - the latter two both lost money, in fact - Barton Fink did one of the only things that producer-type people admire more than turning a profit. It won a record-setting three awards at the Cannes International Film Festival, including the Palme d'Or, and became an enormous success with critics, and it firmly established the Coens as Celebrated Auteurs. The kind that a producer with some money to throw around might very happily get involved with not in the hopes that he might make a profit, but because he wants to be in the business of helping these guys get their projects made. And the producer in this case was Joel Silver, who decided to set them up with a deal through his Silver Pictures, which had exclusively been in the business of making big, dumb action movies to that point. No slight on big, dumb action movies, mind you - both Die Hard and Lethal Weapon were birthed through Silver Pictures, and I'm pretty sure those are my two favorite American action movies of the 1980s. But they're not exactly playing the same game as Barton Fink.

Nonetheless, Silver Pictures, alongside the brothers' old home of Working Title Films (and its new corporate owner, Polygram Filmed Entertainment), was where The Hudsucker Proxy found itself in the early 1990s. And there it was that the Coens made their first Hollywood studio production, more or less, and made it with virtually no interference from Silver; they even got final cut. Given access to proper resources for the first time, I suppose it's no real surprise that they decided to return this very elaborate project, though it seems like a throwback. The one-two punch of Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink found them not only making a pair of all-time masterpieces (and still, I would contend, their two best films, though I remain perpetually uncertain of the order), but also establishing a very clear personality as film storytellers. The Coens of the mid-'80s were excellent filmmakers, but the Coens of 1991 and later had changed into very different excellent filmmakers, and I'm not sure, especially with the evidence of the film in front of me, that the brothers in 1994 were still the right people to direct this screenplay by their ten-years-younger selves. And I would consider that more than a quarter of a century later, The Hudsucker Proxy still feels like something of an outlier, the one entry in the run of nine films between 1984 and 2001 that simply does not seem to fit in with all the others.

None of which is to say that it's a bad movie. In fact, I enjoy it quite a hell of a lot, not least because I am extremely sympathetic to the film's aim of resurrecting the old Hollywood comedy traditions that this so lovingly revives without merely replicating. At heart, The Hudsucker Proxy is a dressed-up version of the scripts Robert Riskin was writing in the '30s and '40s, most famously for director Frank Capra, with some touches of Ben Hecht and the newspaper comedy genre, and just the faintest ghost of Preston Sturges, so lightly seasoning the rest that I might not have even noticed if it it wasn't for the fact that the Coens were both avowed Sturges fans and spoke about his influence on this script. The net result of all this is the one nakedly sentimental Coen film, a sweet-hearted romantic comedy with no more cynicism than is necessary to drive the plot engine. It teases the culture of 1950s corporate culture - for despite virtually all of its touchstones and comedy forebears coming from the '30s and '40s, it has been set in 1958 - with a satiric nibble no sharper than films of the actual Eisenhower era, and one could easily argue that it is in fact less biting than the sharpest of them.

After plumbing the depths with their previous two films, it's entirely reasonable for the Coens to take this palate cleanser. But I really don't think they have quite the right handle one how to deal with something this effervescent, after those plunges into the human id. The Hudsucker Proxy is a very heavy movie in its visuals and pacing, especially in its opening half-hour. Here, we get our basic scenario laid out: Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) a recent graduate of the Muncie College of Business Administration, has just arrived in New York to make his fortune. He discovers instead that even the most menial jobs require extensive experience, save one: mailroom clear at Hudsucker Industries. Right at the moment Norville arrives at the imposing Art Deco skyscraper, Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), president of the company that bears his name, is sitting through a droning board meeting, when he abruptly stands up, runs down the length of the enormous board room table, and pitches himself through the glass window, to fall to his messy death 44 stories below. 45, counting the mezzanine. (Durning gives my pick for the film's best performance here, with barely any screentime - the way he gets a mildly concerned look on his face and motions gently for the people beneath him to move before he squishes them is my favorite thing in the movie. It's an unspeakable shame he only worked with the Coens once more - he falls into their cadences perfectly and with no apparent effort).

In order to manipulate the company's stock price, before Hudsucker's controlling interest hits the open market in a month, board member Sidney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman) proposes that the company place an incompetent moron in the president's seat; confidence in the company will plummet, so will the price of the stock, and the board will be able to quickly buy up a controlling share. And wouldn't you know, Norville just so happens to be the right moron at the right time.

That gets us just over half an hour into the film, and it give me no pleasure to say that it's a pretty sluggish half hour. It's just too... stately. The most clear-cut example of what I have in mind is the board's panic after Hudsucker's great fall: in my memory, it always plays out as a quick, snappy volley of ideas: line-cut-line-cut-line-cut. And it gets there, by the end. But first, it plays out with the actors all carefully articulating their lines and enjoying the language, and moving on. Line. Beat. Cut. Line. Beat. Cut. Line. Beat. Cut. The energetic play of the script is thus slowed down to a crawl; it's like a soufflΓ© made out of concrete.

And it's not just a weirdly draggy cutting place. The reason The Hudsucker Proxy was such an extremely costly proposition is that the script called for making an elaborate fantasy version of New York, creating a city as exaggerated in its Art Deco dreams and nightmares as Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and in roughly the same direction. By God, it is a lavish, lush, rich-looking picture at that. Dennis Gassner's production design is a thing of beauty, evoking the golden age of American skyscraper building mixed with a storybook quality where literally everything seems monumental, from the buildings themselves to the cavernous rooms that fill them: Hudsucker Industry's mail room is a Langian nightmare in its own right, all bustling human figures dwarfed by the shelves around them, and Mussberger's office is an impossible deep-space chamber of grey-on-grey surfaces untouched by human personality. And cinematographer Roger Deakins goes to town with those sets, creating hazy murk in the mailroom to contrast with the golden glow of the lobby, the clean, clear white light of the boardroom, and the sickly, meager light in Mussberger's office, with its severe noir shadows. And then there are the smaller spaces, like a small diner filmed with a cozy telephoto lens and thickly saturated colors that have the nostalgic feeling of a postcard.

It is an exquisitely well-crafted film, this is all to say, but this does not make it any less heavy. To be clear, the film is not incapable of mixing bright comedy with all this handsomeness. The mailroom is host to a magnificent single-take comic monologue, as Norville is informed by an orienter (Christopher Darga) about all the ways that he can be docked pay, the two of them walking in a tracking shot that moves backwards through the massive space. Part of the joke is that the visual stimuli are as overwhelming as the verbal instructions, and the result is one of the most hilarious parts of the film. A bit later, Mussberger's office is used for a two-layer gag sequence in whichΒ  the incomparable depth of the scene keeps Norville, performing one pratfall after another as he tries to put out a fire, and Mussberger, snapping angrily though his dialogue, on two different planes, both of them playing out in a long take that indulges in the pleasures of the staging that feels like one of the most authentic bits of period filmmaking in the whole movie.

Still, what does not come through in any of this is the sense of sparkling joy that can be found in all of the film's models. The film does not dance. For their next pure comedy, 1998's The Big Lebowski, the Coens would use a slow, aimless aesthetic as part of the joke, creating a character who could support this kind of pacing and elaborate filmmaking, and indeed benefit from it. With Hudsucker, I find myself growing restless for it to remember that part of the pleasure of screwball comedy is its unmitigated speed.

Which it does, eventually, remember, right at the moment it introduces Jennifer Jason Leigh's Amy Archer, a Pulitzer-winning journalist who smells a rat in this Norville Barnes character and flings herself into proving it. In a film that would rather indulge in conventions than complicate them, Amy is the most conventional element of all, a sarcastic, cyncical newspaperwoman whose strategy for beating any intellectual opponent is to out-talk them. She's a carbon copy of Hildy Johnson from the magnificent His Girl Friday, and Leigh even plays the part with a healthy helping of Rosalind Russell's garrulous self-amusment and strategies for presentational physical acting. The other major influence is what she borrows from Jean Arthur, mostly the slightly upturned hint of a whine in the back of her voice, as well as Arthur's ability to downshift from snappy smugness to a kind of tired quasi-vulnerability as a way of flagging when her mouth has finally caught up with her brain, and given that The Hudsucker Proxy is a riff on a Rifkin/Capra picture more than it's any other one thing, that's the most natural point for her to draw from.

Leigh's arrival re-defines the energy of the movie around her: Robbins, for one, finally has something to do with his bulbous idiot innocence, and the film's velocity noticeably picks up when Leigh is onscreen, and generally stays there. It starts fast, with a cluster of some of the movie's best scenes almost right in a row: first we get Amy's sniping with the newspaper chief (John Mahoney) and her obnoxious co-worker Smitty (Raimi favorite Bruce Campbell, in the only proper-sized role he got in a Coen film), where the film best captures the tommy-gun rhythms of a good newspaper comedy. Then there's her seduction of the oblivous Norville, narrated with laconic gusto by a pair of offscreen cab drivers (John Seitz and Joe Grifasi), where the film makes its first meta-joke about its pageant-like re-enactment of '30s and '40s formulas, as they recite the scene like a kind of tired blue-collar chorus (an unlikely candidate for my favorite line and line reading of the film: "He don't look wise"). And then Amy's motormouthed recitation of her rehearsed con, which she's forced to keep rewinding and repeating her mechanical patter, as Leigh doesn't even come up for air (the second meta-joke).

From here, it's all pretty fine stuff; never the Coens' funniest movie (it never comes close to matching the opening scene of Raising Arizona, and nobody here captures the rhythms of the film as perfectly as Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, though this is in part because this film's rhythms aren't as well-defined), but often pretty hilarious in its banter. It's also increasingly adept at using its overdone Expressionist visuals and some impressively offbeat lens choices to make the visuals themselves part of the joke, whether by exaggerating things to the point of caricature or simply letting the absurdity of the moment play out. Midway through, the film launches into an extended montage that presents the work of industrial mass production as a kinetic explosion of colors and circles, using perfect editing choices to punch up the repetitive rhythms of the dialogue and shot set-ups, all leading to an unusually inspired use of Aram Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance" to punch up the energy of the sequence right at the moment that it naturally slows down.

Basically, once the film gets up to speed, it remains going fast enough to barrel through the awkward blend of tones, and when it slows down, it tends to be in order to show off something particularly smart or cutting. Even when it starts to run down in the finale, where it pulls in magical realism out of the clear blue sky, it manages to redeem itself, through an exceptionally fun, snippy dialogue scene, and by situating that magical realism in a sort of ad hoc battle between an old, blue-collar God and Satan for Norville's life that gives the film a little dollop of cosmic weight. It doesn't know what to do with this, but it's interesting that it's hear, anticipating the much direct grappling with the question "so, what's God's deal, anyway?" in several of their later films.

Ultimately, though, this all comes down to the sweet interplay between Norville and Amy, played remarkably straight and with something that's downright corny; having introduced a ludicrous fight song in an earlier scene (that gives Leigh and Robbins an incredible opportunity to work against each other with impeccable, incompatible timing), it takes an awful lot of unironic charm to bring it back and slow it down as a moment of guileless tenderness, played for laughs but still cute and sincere. And this is aided by Carter Burwell's lilting romantic musical themes, which fit in perfectly with the selections from Khachaturian's music for the balletSpartacus that the film has liberally borrowedΒ  to create something airy and soaring and downright yearning. It's weird to see a film that has so much fun sarcastically jabbing at its innocent protagonist end up treating him with such generous good humor at the end, but then, the point was never to subvert classical Hollywood comedies, but to embrace them, and those movies never shied away from giving their heroes a well-earned break, even the dopes. It's a weird fit for the Coen brothers of all filmmakers, but the make it work.