Monday, June 23, 2008

Film #49: The Hudsucker Proxy

1994's The Hudsucker Proxy is still Joel and Ethan Coen's gentlest, most magical movie. Its fairy-tale ambitions mix tastefully with good ol' Capra-corn and the Coens' own brand of hyperkinetic filmmaking, resulting in a gigantic comedy with philosophical musings on time and fate. Tim Robbins plays bumbling mailroom nebbish and aspiring inventor Norville Barnes. After mere hours on the job at the Hudsucker Corporation--and after the joyous suicide of its president, Wareing Hudsucker (Charles Durning)--Barnes is promoted to president of the company by the scheming head of the Board of Directors (Paul Newman, in a rare villainous role). His plan is to drive the stock down so low that he and the board of directors can buy it out cheap. But Norville surprises the fatcats and rescues the company by inventing something, so fun, so nifty, that every kid in American has to get it. Enter here a nosy reporter (Jennifer Jason Leigh doing her fast-talking Kate Hepburn thing) who tries to unmask Norville but ends up falling for him instead (scored by Carter Burwell's take on Aram Khachaturian's theme to his 1957 classical ballet Spartacus, their first kiss is one of my favorite romantic moments in screen history).

After helming slower-paced films like Barton Fink and Miller's Crossing, Joel Coen's direction slipped into fifth gear with this goofy, visually nimble work. The physical comedy is over-the-top (the scene with Robbins trying to put out a trash fire in Newman's office is a riot); the verbal comedy is Howard Hawks-quick and cutting (especially in the newsroom with Leigh, editor John Mahoney and fellow reporter Bruce Campbell). And one of the film's most memorable moments has a pretty talented little kid taking a shine to Norville's new toy invention (watch the invention and marketing of the scene below). Random note: The shape of a circle is this Coen Brothers movie's reoccurring visual motif; every one of their films has Barton Fink, for instance, the motif is heads--heads are mentioned in almost every scene, and John Turturro's performance is all head / no body. In Hudsucker, the circle is represented not only in the hoop, but in the huge clock that tops the Hudsucker building, and in the talk about the "circle of life" that goes on in the film. Circles all over the place...

As always with Coen films, there's incredible art direction by Dennis Gassner and photography by Roger Deakins. But Hudsucker has one more thing up its sleeve: extraordinary special effects. No descriptions here, but when you see them, notice not just their verisimilitude but their colorful artistry. Certainly one of the most overlooked films of the 1990s, The Hudsucker Proxy was an $35 million box-office dud when released (still the Coens' most expensive film, I'd reckon), but surely it's achieved cult status by now. Look close for cameos by Peter Gallagher and Steve Buscemi, and even CLOSER for ones from the late Anna Nicole Smith and Hudsucker co-writer / Evil Dead director Sam Raimi!

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