' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: The Hudsucker Proxy

Friday, March 26, 2010

My Great Movies: The Hudsucker Proxy

The Coen Brothers' ode to the classic screwball comedies opens with a shot of New York City in 1958 that resembles how New York City always appears in my mind. I have visited there four times now yet my brain never ceases to see it as an idyllic skyscraper laden utopia that has never actually existed. When I think of New York all I think of is the big tree at Rockefeller Plaza and, of course, Kate Beckinsale and John Cusack skating in the snow in Central Park. I never think of what must constitute the reality of a New York winter. All of which is to say "The Hudsucker Proxy", the tale of a small town rube who comes to the City That Never Sleeps, strikes it rich, becomes something he is not, and must find the way back to his former self, has no basis in any sort of reality.

A few months ago Salon convened a panel to discuss the best film made by the prolific Coen Brothers. They bandied about many titles, all of them good. "Fargo", "The Big Lebowski", "No Country For Old Men", even the recent "Serious Man". Other movies in their canon were mentioned in passing, too, save for one - "The Hudsucker Proxy". The one which just happens to be my favorite Coen Brothers movie.

Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins, facial expressions stationed at the most dizzying of heights) is the aforementioned rube. Fresh of the train from Muncie, Indiana he finds the only job available to him, the only one that does not require the "experience" he does not possess, is in the chaotic mail room of Hudsucker Industries. Suddenly, Norville is summoned to take a Blue Letter to the top floor to one of the company's vice presidents, villainous Sidney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman, line readings dry like a martini that buried all the bar's vermouth out back in the dirt). But when Mussburger sees apple-faced Norville he launches a scheme fraught with diabolicalness.

See, the company's President, Waring J. Hudsucker (Charles Durning), has just taken his life in the most dramatic way possible and so that Mussburger and his cohorts can drive the company stock down before buying it all back for themselves they must install a patsy as President. Scrub up Norville, stick him in a suit, shove a cigar in his mouth, and they're good to go!

Across the way at the Manhattan Argus, however, Pullitzer Prize winning reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh, talking faster than Eminem raps, in a Hepburn-esque accent) has her doubts. She goes undercover at Hudsucker Industries in the guise of Norville's secretary where she plans to out him as a "stooge". Except, hope against hope, logic against logic, gasp (!), Amy falls for this Muncie bumpkin. And after Norville strikes it big with a harebrained scheme ("You know, for kids") and lets success go to his head, Amy calls him out, while simultaneously calling herself out for perhaps putting up a front, and before long Norville finds himself even lower than he was in the mail room. Will he make it back to the top? What do you think? And what is it about this particular film that rubs people the wrong way? It was, after all, a considerable commercial bomb, barely eking out $3 million at the box office.

The Coen Brothers have been accused of many things - of being post-modern stylists or (egads!) genre filmmakers, which is to say they merrily skip from genre to genre, making movies subscribing to that particular genre's rules implicitly, all stone cold, cynical calculation, no soul. So in "The Hudsucker Proxy" the Brothers find themselves subscribing to the statutes of the screwball yet without lending it as much overt irony as you typically find in a Coen enterprise. This might be their most straight-forward comedic endeavor and as the "Home Of The Screwball" website points out: "The genre pretty much died out after the Depression. World War II brought with it a general loss of innocence and the form began to go out of vogue or take on a more violent form."

Was such a straight-forward homage to an innocent and long gone genre the Coen Brothers' mistake? Or was it something else?

The esteemed Roger Ebert attacked the film because "not even the slightest attempt is made to suggest that the film takes its own story seriously." Uh...it's a comedy. Who wants the story to be taken seriously in a comedy? "Fargo" was humorous, sure, but it also went for real human emotion. "The Hudsucker Proxy", meanwhile, just wants to be funny. It has a distinct, as Caryn James noted in her original New York Times review, "fairy tale mood."

The problem, I think, emerges when a movie's goal is to be funny by playing everything with the straightest of faces. Certainly there are conventionally funny moments and we receive a few classic one liners ("I do remember, and I was impressed, but that's all forgotten") and also, like "The Big Lebowski" poking fun at voiceover when The Narrator babbles so much he loses his train of thought, "The Hudsucker Proxy" takes dead aim at sending up montages. But more often the comedy in this movie is a whole different kind. It is a term to which I have returned often on this blog - Ludicrous Poignancy.

To define Ludicrous Poignancy I would like to step away from "The Hudsucker Proxy" for one moment and direct you to the pentultimate scene in Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic" when our main character, Bill Murray's Steve Zissou, and just about every other main character take to the ocean depths in a submersible (just like a high school play! Get everyone onstage at the end!) to track down the infamous Jaguar Shark. It is a lovely moment, colored in by Sigur Ros's "Star Lfur", but it is also completely cornball. At one moment, Cate Blanchett's news reporter, sitting to Murray's left, puts her hand to her belly, where her child grows in the womb, and says with no hint of irony: "In twelve years he'll be eleven and a half." Murray, tears forming in his eyes, replies: "That was my favorite age."

That is Ludicrous Poignancy in total! Serious moments and scenes taken at face value, played entirely frank, and, unbeknownst to the characters, are utterly awash in lunacy. Do you really feel anything deep down in your gut? How could you? It's insanity! They're looking for a JAGUAR SHARK!

Consider this exchange in "The Hudsucker Proxy" on the balcony between Norville and Amy the night before he is set to make a big presentation to the board.

Norville: "What do you think you were in a previous life?"
Amy: "Oh, I don't know. Maybe I was just a fast-talking career gal who thought she was one of the boys."
Norville: "Oh, no, Amy, pardon me for saying so, but I find that very far-fetched. I find it more likely that you were a gazelle...with long, graceful legs, gamboling through the underbrush. Perhaps we met once. A chance encounter in a forest glade. I must have been an antelope or an ibex. The times we must've had foraging together for sustenance, snorfling water from a mountain stream, picking the grubs and burrs from one another's coats. Or perhaps we simply touched horns briefly and went our separate ways."
Amy: "Oh, I wish it were that simple, Norville. I wish I was just a gazelle and you were an antelope or an ibex."


If there is one scene in movie history I wish I would have written it's that one. No, it's not typical comedy. It's not winking at us. These characters believe every word they say and the filmmakers believe it, too, coating the sequence in sweeping music as the camera pushes in on their first kiss, the make believe skyline standing at attention behind them.

Do we sense empathy for these mawkish lovebirds? In no way whatsoever. But empathy is not necessary if we are stepping out of reality, and I think it's safe to say a film where a clock caretaker shoves a broom handle into the spokes of that very clock to most literally stop time so a character hurtling through the air and about to smash into the cement far below is suddenly suspended in mid-air which leads to the clock caretaker looking directly into the camera and wondering aloud "Have you got a better idea?" is ignoring reality with extreme prejudice.

There are a number of fantasy elements to the film, from the invention by someone who didn't really invent it to plunges from rooftops that seem to last forever. Heck, the whole thing, when you get right down to it, is a fantasy. The thought that a small town simpleton who never made "varsity" can make it in the Big Apple, can turn the nation on its head with one preposterous pitch, can fall in love with a fast talkin' career gal, and that even if he falls he can pick himself back up and start anew and triumph once and for all over those Machiavellian big businessmen. No, this isn't based on reality and if it isn't then why bother with taking your story seriously? And maybe that's the Coens' real post modern comment on the genre. Gee, isn't life swell in a screwball?

1 comment:

MeganMoonStruck said...

This was my favorite one too.