Saturday, November 2, 2013

From My Collection: The Hudsucker Proxy Movie Review

Full disclosure: I’m an almost shameless lover of the Coen brothers. There’s hardly a film they’ve made that I don’t like and with one exception, I own every one of their films on DVD. That doesn’t mean I’m blind to the things that don’t work and the films that fail in some very important aspects. With that said, The Hudsucker Proxy was always a film I liked for its quirky Coen-ness, but clearly I wasn’t crazy about it because it took me fourteen years after I got my first DVD player (and nineteen years after the film was released) to purchase a copy.

Now I hadn’t watched the film for years and while I didn’t dislike it this time or even think its necessarily bad, I completely understand why it’s mostly disregarded in serious discussions of the Coens’ work. It lacks a cohesiveness that their best work contains. At the very least you have to admire their courage in trying their hand at so many different types of movie. They made their names with a noirish crime thriller, then followed up with a Looney Toons-style madcap caper comedy and Prohibition era gangster story, and finally a slow burn dramatic thriller cum brainy literary work. The Hudsucker Proxy is their attempt at a 1940s style fast-talking comedy about American culture and values a la Preston Sturges. They wrote it years earlier with friend and fellow writer-director Sam Raimi.

In Tim Robbins they found a perfect casting choice to play the small fish in a big pond Norville Barnes, a guy whose innocence and wide-eyed optimism are not long for this world and certainly not a good fit for the fast pace of the big city. He’s pegged for a schmo by the VP of Hudsucker Industries, Sidney Mussberger (Paul Newman), who is looking for a proxy to head the company and unwittingly drive the stock down so Mussberger and the board can buy a controlling interest. This is all in response to Hudsucker throwing himself out of the 44th (not counting the mezzanine) floor window. What Mussberger doesn’t count on is that Norville has one big idea – You know, for kids – to put Hudsucker back on top. Less aptly cast is Jennifer Jason Leigh as Amy Archer, a fast-talking newspaper reporter who decides to go undercover to expose Norville for a dolt.

The look of the film is great. There’s a very clear vision for the production design. There’s an attempt to create a city that feels both real and fictional simultaneously. The Coens took a lot of money – more than any film they’d made before – to build a model cityscape inspired by New York of the 1940s. The skyline doesn’t quite look like any city I’ve seen, but each building could be real. The mail room of Hudsucker Industries, where Norville starts his career, is loaded with miles of pneumatic tubes snaking around and piles of envelopes and letter. It looks like a Terry Gilliam film. The upper offices have an art deco look with clean lines and cavernous spaces devoid of much furniture.

The screenplay is laden with rapid fire dialogue spoken by characters who shoot words with the rat-a-tat rhythm of a machine gun. Leigh handles it well. After all, Archer is the fastest of the fast talkers, but it’s John Mahoney as her editor who shines when he barks frustration at his writers who haven’t yet got the goods on the new Hudsucker president.

It’s all got this feel of an old style Hollywood film even down to the Magical Negro character (played by Bill Cobbs) who introduces Norville to use with a short narration and maintains the big clock on top of the building. It would be easy to accuse Joel and Ethan Coen of ignorantly employing the Magical Negro trope, but I can’t help but feel they’re well aware of the risk and have made a conscious decision to do so in service to the craft of replicating a certain era and genre of film.

But the Coens spent so much time on the cosmetic details that they may have missed out on crafting an emotionally sound storyline with characters whom we care about. Leigh comes across as caustic and a bit too much like a cartoonish imitation of a Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell type. I’m not sure the problem is in the writing of her character as much as it just isn’t a comfortable fit for Leigh, who doesn’t seem to find an entry point to making her a real person. Robbins is great as Norville, but the failure in his character is more in his simplistic arc of naïf to jaded corporate officer and then sullen and downtrodden depressive so quickly. Paul Newman makes Mussberger one of the most interesting characters in the film. He’s the villain, but he doesn’t do anything so terrible. What he does comes from the point of view of saving the company from being owned by the general public. Sure, he uses Norville and orchestrates his downfall, but Mussberger thinks he’s the hero in the story. That’s compelling character writing.

The movie is trying to be too many things at once, I think. As entertaining as it is, mostly due to several classic Coen moments and some camera tricks inspired by Raimi, it’s hard to really engage with. It’s a lesser work by an otherwise masterful writing and directing team.

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