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The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

by on 2011/12/30

“I don’t think anybody expected this much hoopla.”

* * * *

Has there ever been a Coen brothers movie as divisive as The Hudsucker Proxy? It seems as fashionable to condemn it as it is to laud their other works. However, for all the complaints about style over substance and an excess of references, my critical faculties simply didn’t care. Rarely do I laugh out loud as much as I did with this piece, regardless of how conflicted I usually feel with their efforts.

Beginning in New York City, on New Year’s Eve in 1958, we glimpse a pivotal moment before flashing back to The Story So Far. We follow the rise and fall of Norville Barnes (The Shawshank Redemption’s Tim Robbins), a humble mailroom employee granted a suspicious opportunity. He’s actually being set up to fail by executive Sidney Mussburger (Butch Cassidy’s Paul Newman).

Against all odds, he meets the girl of dreams (Jennifer Jason Lee of eXistenZ), promotes a popular novelty, and becomes a celebrity. Then, just as quickly, over the Christmas holidays, he wrestles with his next attempt, faced with a lack of inspiration, and corrupted by his too-sudden power.

Tim Robbins plays the wide-eyed optimist version of an everyman. He’s funny, physical, and does a wonderful stare into the middle distance when he’s depressed. Jennifer Jason Leigh demonstrates why she was chosen to portray Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. Her rapid-fire single-sided dialogues — no, I wouldn’t call them soliloquies — are as rhythmically compelling as evocative of a boys-club dame’s tone.

The casting and cameos are appropriately done with actors who appear reasonably natural in the period: Bruce Campbell (Army of Darkness), Charles Durning, Peter Gallagher, John Mahoney (Say Anything), Anna Nicole Smith, and John Goodman (Barton Fink) doing narration. My favourite by far is Steve Buscemi (Ghost World) as a beatnik bartender, nixing the hard stuff for coffee and vegetable juice. Where was he when I finally saw Greenwich Village?

Their world is like time out of mind . . . or maybe mind out of time. The four-way collision of art deco, Looney Tunes, Metropolis, and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, looks simultaneously like little else, and my idealized vision of the past. Looming, cavernous spaces filled with industrial elements, filtered through forced perspective make you believe a Gotham City could really exist.

Within this world, a hyperkinetic energy dictates the physics, more joyously pervasive than in any Cranks or Shoot ‘em Ups. The “screwball comedy” label is usually a warning I heed, but not this time. The cheap pratfalls and straining slapstick I abhor in most such tales is less a factor than a well-meant clumsiness. Here, exuberance triumphs over meanness.

The setting itself is mined for elements both appropriate and now-unusual: advertising, promotional shorts, newsreels and, of course, the music. Traditional classics — most prominently Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” — are bolstered by jazz, lounge, and production library tunes, adding texture and life to the whole.

If I had any quibbles (no, not the dream sequence) I do wish it was all black and white. For best effect, I’d try grayscale grain, or perhaps intentionally poor colourization. Similarly, I’d like to hear the too-new, too-slick music unpolished. To match the vintage songs, I’d rather the rest were rendered monaurally, and their frequencies reduced, as if through a phone.

Otherwise, I have no real problems with The Hudsucker Proxy. This experience was nearly religious, which is to say I believed despite others’ damning reactions. My proof is more than technical. I have affection for the era, the plot, its players and themes, the filmmaking touches, and the irrational spirit which drove me to burst out in laughter. At the cusp of a new year, what’s better than holiday cheer?

* * * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / PG (United States)

111 minutes

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