The Coen brothers are Beavis and Butt-head. * Think about it. The creators of such cinematic curiosities as Miller's Crossing (1990) and Barton Fink (1991) have got the hair (writer-director Joel, 39, combs back his dark locks; writer-producer Ethan, 36, sports a near-blond bouffant). They've got the laugh (Joel's nicotine chuckle, Ethan's high-pitched giggle). And most important, they've got the slackjaw 'tude of MTV's faux-moronic cartoon chums. * The Coens may not spend their waking hours mainlining T&A music videos, but they've become art-house heroes by crafting movies that are intentionally bogus and daft and cool all at once-which may explain why their entire acclaimed film output has grossed less than Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Suddenly, however, the stakes are higher: Their new big-business comedy The Hudsucker Proxy, made under the auspices of megaproducer Joel Silver-best known for the blockbuster Die Hard, Predator, and Lethal Weapon franchises-is either the Coens' debut in the mainstream or the most expensive art film ever made. * It's also definitive proof that the brothers are as tough to decipher as ever,even for those who work with them. ''If you tried to find the message in (their movies),'' says Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays Hudsucker's motormouth reporter Amy Archer, ''they'd laugh in your face.'' And not just any laugh: One unfortunate 1990 interviewer who tried to tie Ethan's college major-philosophy-to their cinematic vision was smothered with what she termed ''a barrage of heh-heh-hehs.''
''Everybody's looking for an extraordinary description of an enigma,'' says Miller's Crossing star Gabriel Byrne, ''when actually they're just two ordinary guys.''
Not quite. The Coens' 1984 debut, Blood Simple, served up corpses that won't stay dead. Their second effort, 1987's Raising Arizona, featured Holly Hunter and Nicolas Cage as low-wattage baby snatchers in love. Miller's Crossing found its lyricism in mob rubouts. And Barton Fink was as obsessed with a strip of artfully peeling wallpaper as with the heart of its hero, who, in a typical Coen joke, was a blocked screenwriter- turned-murder suspect. All of which suggests that the only thing the brothers' films share is the impossibility of categorizing them. ''I guess,'' Joel ponders reluctantly, ''the way (Hollywood) considers us is like, 'They're over in the corner there doing their thing, and they're not, like, hurting anybody. Let them go and play.'''
Now, however, the Midwestern boys who moved to New York to make movies have / upgraded their sandbox with the big-budget (officially $25 million, though there are reports that it topped out at $40 million) Hudsucker Proxy. The high-gloss comedy-about a Midwestern rube (played by Tim Robbins) who moves to New York, accidentally becomes the head of a huge corporation, and wins national renown by inventing the Hula Hoop-brought the Coens something they had never attained before: major-studio financing and with it an obligation to the bottom line that will provide the biggest test yet of their bent instincts. Says Raising Arizona's executive producer Jim Jacks, ''They'll always try to make a movie as commercial as it has to be to recoup the investment, which is making them nervous. They've never made a movie so expensive that they had to make it that commercial, until now.''