Thursday, December 30, 2004

Review: "The Hudsucker Proxy" (1994)

The title of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" comes from the 1941 comedy "Sullivan's Travels". In that film, a Hollywood director disguises himself as a hobo in order to write a meaningful screenplay about the human condition. What he discovers is that people didn't want to see that kind of film. They preferred escapism. The Coen Brothers chose that title because after the heaviness and critical raves of "Fargo", they wanted to make films whose raison d'etre was pure entertainment. Fortunately, they had plenty of practice at this sort of film.

"The Hudsucker Proxy" concerns one Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), who has arrived in New York City fresh off the bus and eager to get into the workforce. Meanwhile, Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), Founder and President of Hudsucker Industries, has just plummeted 44 floors to his death. His devious board of directors, headed by Vice President Sidney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman), hatch a takeover plan which involves installing Norville as a puppet President until the end of the year. Intrepid reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) smells something fishy almost immediately, and is determined to expose all of these dealings to the public. Little does she know that she'll end up falling for Norville in the process.

When a movie works, I mean really works, there's a giddiness that I cannot contain when watching it. "The Incredibles" and the "Ocean's 11" remake fall into this category. Both of those films are fun in the purest sense, and so is "Hudsucker". Like Norville, the Coen's are so earnest and true in their wish to make people happy with their product that it shows. The laughs come as fast as the characters speak, and we are consistently wowed by the visuals of a 1950's corporate culture run amok.

Speaking of the visuals, some reviewers thought that the movie fails to recapture the feel of screwball comedies because the visuals are too extreme. Trying to completely copy an old movie genre is a tricky business and very rarely works (One exception is "Down With Love", which came very close to it's Rock Hudson/Doris Day progenitors). With "Hudsucker", there are several genres at play. There's a Warner Brothers cartoon vibe to the proceedings as we see characters fall from great heights in the grand tradition of Wile E. Coyote. We see giant clock mechanisms that seem fit for Charlie Chaplin to ride on. We observe swells of music as two characters embrace and fall into silhouette as if in a Douglas Sirk melodrama. But it all fits together and, in the confines of the world this film creates, it never strikes a false moment.

Carter Burwell, who has done the music for all of the Coen Brothers films, is fast becoming one of the most talented composers in Hollywood. Whether it's the mournful Norwegian dirge in "Fargo" or the light Irish melody that pervades "Miller's Crossing", he can truly capture and amplify the spirit of a film thorough his compositions. "Hudsucker", appropriately, has a lot of peppy music that mirrors Norville's attitudes. There's also the aforementioned swells of violins that opens the films that never fails to give me goosebumps. Also of note is Burwell's (and the Coens') use of Aram Khachaturyan's fast paced "Sabre Dance" for a pivotal sequence.

There's not a lot of depth to the characters in this film, nor is there intended to be. Robbins plays the lovable doofus with "big ideas", and brings the perfect amount of naivete to the character. Jennifer Jason Leigh is pitch perfect as the fast talking news gal so well done by Rosiland Russell in "His Girl Friday" (One of Mrs. Mosley's favorite films). And Paul Newman lends the gravitas required for the role of the heavy, chomping on a cigar and looking like the villain he is. And it's also nice to see such likeable actors as John Mahoney, Bill Cobbs and Bruce Campbell in supporting roles.

I've read reviewers that have said this film is really for movie buffs with its references to past classics. With some films I would agree with this sort of evaluation, but not with "Hudsucker". When I watch it, I'm not thinking of the films it may reference but rather the film that it is: A completely perfect joyous movie experience.

Ten out of Ten

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