IN THE NEW COMEDY _B_Greedy,_b_ an avaricious horde of relatives schemes, deceives and grovels in hopes of winning its rich uncle's huge inheritance, while the uncle takes sadistic delight in their humiliation. In the comedy _B_The Ref,_b_ a snarlingly ill-matched husband and wife are taken hostage by a thief, but it's the crook who's dying to escape after exposure to their toxically dysfunctional family. In _B_The Hudsucker Proxy,_b_ corporate greed incites a tycoon to hire a witless dolt to head his company so that stock prices will fall and the grasping board members can buy up the shares.
Bile, as a comic ingredient, is back. Hollywood seems to be gambling that the best cure for our national distemper is a blast of nasty humor. Both "Greedy" and "The Ref" find comic pay dirt in the spectacle of blood relations uncorking their revulsions and resentments in open insult. You could read them as belated tantrums against the patriarchal, money-obsessed Reagan '80s.
The trouble with "Greedy" is that it lacks the courage of its crankiness: director Jonathan Lynn leavens bile with moralism, meanness with sentimentality, and it's not a palatable brew. The relatives who descend on wheelchairbound Uncle Joe McTeague (Kirk Douglas) have tough competition in the inheritance game: Uncle's luscious British live-in "nurse" (Olivia d'Abo). Desperate, they dig up Uncle Joe's long-lost favorite nephew (Michael J. Fox), a professional bowler whose idealism is severely compromised when it dawns on him how much money he could rake in. Any film written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel ("Splash," "Parenthood") is bound to have its share of laughs (many supplied by Phil Hartman), but they get bogged down in soul-searching. The have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too ending says a lot about Hollywood: naturally, this ferocious attack on avarice can end happily only if someone gets filthy rich.
One of the reasons "The Ref" is a funnier, more trenchant comedy than "Greedy" is that it's cast better. Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey play the bickering couple jewel thief Denis Leary has the misfortune to kidnap. Their bone-deep mutual disgust gives the farce a bracing edge of verisimilitude. They snap and squabble from the moment they're hijacked, driving their frustrated captor to moan, "I've hijacked my f--g parents!" And he has yet to meet their screwed-up, blackmailing son Jesse (Robert Steinmiller Jr.) or Spacey's rich monster mom (Glynis Johns) and the rest of the bickering brood descending for Christmas Eve dinner.
If "Greedy" takes its cue from Ben Jonson's "Volpone." "The Ref" owes an obvious debt to O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief." The script, by Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss, veers unevenly between sharp, sophisticated malice and crowd-pleasing low humor, but director Ted Demme (Jonathan's nephew) keeps the laughs coming at a brisk pace. Stand-up comic Leary holds his own as a felon whose values prove more decent than those of the indiscreet, uncharming bourgeoisie. But "The Ref's" venom is ultimately more bark than bite: its feel-good wrap-up seems rushed and unearned. The great bilious black comedies arose from a singular vision-from a Billy Wilder, a Bunuel, a Polanski. In both "Greedy" and "The Ref" you can feel the footprints of studio committees. Hollywood will never be comfortable with true misanthropy, preferring to hedge its bets.
You can't say that about the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan. Though "The Hudsucker Proxy" had a much bigger budget than "Barton Fink" or "Raising Arizona," this highly stylized comic extravaganza bears their unmistakably independent stamp. This big-business satire is a postmodern pastiche of the Capra, Hawks and Sturges rat-a-tat social comedies of the '30s and '40s. Though set in 1958, everything about it-from its rube Midwestern hero (Tim Robbins) to its fast-talking reporter heroine (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to its cigar-chomping villain (Paul Newman) to its spectacular sets (by Dennis Gassner)-reeks of those earlier decades.
Robbins is the dolt Newman plucks from the Hudsucker company mailroom and makes president. Hot-shot reporter Leigh, smelling a rat, poses as Robbins's secretary and wins his heart while pillorying him in print. But the idiot is a savant: his simple-minded invention-the hula hoop becomes a national obsession, forcing Newman to find new ways to crush him.
"The Hudsucker Proxy," which the Coens co-wrote with Sam Raimi, has sequences as dazzling as anything they've done. It also has passages that are unusually strained and shrill: gags that only reveal the effort that went into them. Movie buffs will lap up the inventive variations on old conventions and revel in Leigh's astonishing mile-a-minute amalgam of Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell. But even by the Coens' cool standards, "Hudsucker" is a chilly experience (you don't go to the Coens for the milk of human kindness). Brilliant as its artifice is, there's something hollow at its core. In the past, the Coens took old genres and twisted them into distinctive new shapes. Here they seem as much imprisoned by old movies as inspired. This supremely self-conscious comedy is both delightful and exhausting. But never for a moment do you doubt that it's exactly the movie they wanted to make. Its gleeful, cartoon heartlessness is for real.