Consider, if you will, two long-awaited megabudget movies. One has $100 million worth of advertising behind it; the other doesn’t. One is a blockbuster; the other has all but Houdinied from theaters. One has built-in audience recognition; the other has a weird title that seems designed to keep people away. So of course I’m rooting for the underdog. The Hudsucker Proxy is the exact opposite of everything bad you may have read about it, so please see it, either in a theater (if possible) or on video. I don’t, on the other hand, care whether you see The Flintstones.
The Flintstones, which cost around $40 million and raked in $37 million in its first weekend, is fun but instantly forgettable. Hudsucker, which cost about the same as The Flintstones but has only made about $3 million (making it 1994′s most costly flop by far), is terrific. That’s right: Hudsucker the failure, Hudsucker the critics’ dartboard, is one of the year’s best movies, and I’ll say so in front of God and everyone. Of course, you didn’t see Hudsucker mugs at McDonald’s, did you?
The movies have other things in common besides their price tags. Both have elaborate sets; both feature an actor departing from his nice-guy image to play dirty (Kyle MacLachlan in The Flintstones, Paul Newman in Hudsucker); both were executive-produced by Hollywood hotshots known for throwing serious cash at pet projects (Joel Silver on Hudsucker, “Steven Spielrock” on The Flintstones). Most tellingly, both have the same basic plot: An anonymous company drone gets sucked into a scheme that makes him the fall guy for corporate shenanigans; success turns him into a stuck-up jerk until failure humbles him again. The difference is quality, which begins, as always, with the script. Three guys — director Joel Coen, producer Ethan Coen, and their buddy Sam Raimi, a zesty director in his own right (who, oddly enough, has cameos in both films) — wrote Hudsucker. A reported thirty-three writers toiled on The Flintstones. That round-table approach to scripting may work with sitcoms, but a feature film needs shape, not only a succession of gags.
Hudsucker, luckily, has both. From start to stop, it’s a goof, popping from the fevered-prankster brows of the Coens (Raising Arizona, Barton Fink) and Raimi (the Evil Dead trilogy). Many critics hate the Coens because their films play too many games — you boys stop this damned fooling around, or you’ll go to bed without supper! — and Hudsucker is, gloriously, no exception. The parting-of-the-ways sequence here is the double-stitch flashback, in which Paul Newman, literally dangling by the seat of his pants above a 45-story drop, tries to remember whether he specified stronger stitching in the seam of his trousers. Either you think this is funny or you think it’s stupid. Me, I say it’s a lot funnier than a bowling ball falling on Fred Flintstone’s head. The Coens should be applauded, not spanked, for their virtuoso playfulness.
To be fair, The Flintstones offers its own oddball incidental pleasures: Never again will we see Elizabeth Taylor and the B-52s in the same movie. Kyle MacLachlan, beloved for his Dale Cooper on Twin Peaks, gives a juicy performance as the corporate greedhead Cliff Vandercave, who plans to rebuild Bedrock and embezzle the profits. (As RoboCop and Darkman taught us, rich guys who brag about building the City of the Future are never to be trusted.) MacLachlan seems to be having a blast — with his Dudley Do-Right jaw, he’s a cartoon anyway — and Rosie O’Donnell, though she isn’t given much else to do with her character, at least nails Betty Rubble’s signature giggle. It’s probably perverse to criticize talented actors for not effectively duplicating Hanna-Barbera doodles, but Rick Moranis and Elizabeth Perkins ring no particular bells as Barney and Wilma. MacLachlan scores because he isn’t competing with childhood memories — he’s free to make Cliff Vandercave his own. Apart from him and the cheerful O’Donnell, who seems happy enough to pay homage to a cartoon she enjoyed as a girl, the actors seem rather sad and lost; the loincloths force indignity on them.
It’s ironic that John Goodman (who did outstanding work in two Coen movies, Raising Arizona and Barton Fink) has finally found a starring role in a hit by submerging almost everything that sets him apart. He has been cast for his physique and hearty voice. Yet there’s something dark and restless in this actor — you see it on Roseanne, too — that resists being flattened into a two-dimensional clown in a movie for kids. Goodman does a competent Fred, but he’s been worrying in interviews whether he’ll now be typecast. If I were him, I’d worry: Apart from his consistent excellence on Roseanne, his best performances (True Stories, Matinee) have been largely unseen. If The Flintstones becomes his biggest success, it won’t be because he can now carry a movie; the franchise carries the movie. Goodman is a complex actor — a born character actor, really — and if he ends up playing Fred or quasi-Freds for the rest of his life, he has only himself to blame. He can always return to the Coens; it seems to have worked for Tim Robbins.
In Hudsucker, Robbins plays Norville Barnes, an idealistic, ambitious “farm boy” who becomes a patsy for the stockholders of toy manufacturer Hudsucker Industries. The movie is aggressively stylized and old-fashioned — every plot point has quotes around it — and Robbins strikes his performance from the Stewart-Capra mold. I’m not sure what I think of Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose tickertape turn as a hard-edged reporter is Katharine Hepburn by way of Howard Hawks. It is refreshing, though, to see her enjoying herself in a comedy and playing a relatively stable woman, and it’s a relief to see Robbins being goony again after his trilogy of jerks (The Player, Bob Roberts, Short Cuts). His enraptured expression as he unveils his new creation (“You know…for kids!”) is worth the ticket price by itself. Even when Hudsucker gets a tad goony itself — the climax is the textbook definition of deus ex machina — Robbins anchors the hijinks in reality.
Perhaps the most glaring difference between the movies is that one was directed by the guys who made Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing, and the other was directed by Brian Levant, the guy who made Problem Child 2 and Beethoven. The Coens use their sets to suggest a prevailing mood — the chaos of the mailroom where Norville gets his start, the icy vastness of Newman’s office — while Levant just points a camera at his sets; he’s a tourist sightseeing in Bedrock. Neither film feels inhabited, but that’s the point of Hudsucker; Bedrock, which should feel like a community, doesn’t — and that hurts, because we’re supposed to care whether Cliff Vandercave razes Bedrock for his own gain. The Hudsucker Proxy is a witty, engaging variation on a theme (rise and fall of the little guy). The Flintstones is just a theme park. With, of course, a theme song.