In The Big Lebowski, when Walter says, “Say what you will about the tenants of national socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos,” you have to wonder if the Coens weren’t acknowledging their own tendencies. They may not be nihilists in the same way as the stupid Germans in Lebowski, but they’re still nihilists. Arguably the only film they’ve made that isn’t in the end absurd and meaningless is O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and that was an adaptation that, in spite of its theme of redemption, is still infused with the Coens’ characteristic ultimate pointlessness. For the record, no one here is saying that those boys can’t put together a swell movie. With such prolific production, though, their cynicism may not be as strong as Kubrick’s but it’s just as much there. The Hudsucker Proxy has been accused of a core emptiness, a vacuum in the eye of the storm disguised by flare and style. This is a problem with being too intelligent for your own good. Everything becomes a tongue-in-cheek homage. Or, you wallow in the dead end of intellectual limits, finding new and clever ways to soliloquize over the vacuity of existence. It’s not that there isn’t truth to such conclusions – everything is, after all, a bit meaningless – but one should question the productivity of not taking the next step, asking, “So what?” If the pointlessness of life exists only to be talked about and converted into art, then that talking and that art are just as pointless as life. Better, perhaps to break through the brick wall of meaning(lessness) and choose a fork in the road: create some meaning or find some that has evaded you thus far.
But, the film. The His Girl Friday stuff is pretty joyous, especially with Jennifer Jason Leigh channeling fast-talkies like that one and everything Kate Hepburn ever did. Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) is the inept imbecile whose alleged humanity (endorsed by the film itself) is compromised by the narrative. If the film had anything going for it at the beginning, it’s that this kid from Muncie, Indiana is innocent, idealistic, and unstained by the big-city world. His virtue stands contrary to that of another contemporary small-town boy come to the booming metropolis to make a life for himself: Kenneth Parcell in 30 Rock. Kenneth, despite his here-and-there slip-ups, maintains his convictions and doesn’t let big bad New York change him as a person. Norvile, on the other hand, quickly slips into the same gratuitous self-indulgence as his predecessor once he’s made a fast buck on a lucky idea. What this says is that “virtue” is something that should always remain in quotes. It’s not strong or resilient on its own, just foolish. A virtuous fool is just a fool, and once given the opportunity to step on others to maintain his place at the top, he’ll do just that. Class boundaries and the selfishness of the American dream aren’t chastised in this film; nothing really is. One corporate bigwig decides, in a frenzied laughing fit, to jump to his death from 44 floors (or 45, if you count the mezzanine). Another equally sinister exec ends up in the nuthouse. And Norville the nincompoop remains on top by sheer luck and happenstance. When the first president revisits Norville during his long fall from the top, he comes as an angel. This ridiculous fact on its own exposes the Coens’ rejection of meaning and morality. That such an evil fiend should plan such an end for himself, including a last-ditch gesture of friendship that inevitably backfires, and end up with wings and a hula-hoop halo says it all. Still, it’s a really funny movie.