Rates: * * * * 1/2
Why Did I Watch It? Saw it on my DVD shelf and realised I hadn’t seen it for years.
In a hyper real version of 1950s America, a wide eyed innocent, Norville Barnes, arrives in New York looking to make it big. He lands an entry level job at ‘Hudsucker Industries’; an industrial giant riding high on the stock market…. whose founder and President has just committed suicide. Barnes is about to become an unwitting pawn in a convoluted game for future control of the company. But he has some tricks up his sleeve (he does): you know, for kids?
One of the Coens Brothers most giddy and delerious films is also, slightly, one of their more polarising. While this was widely praised on release, people had their reservations. The knock against the Coens used to be that their films lacked heart, that their characters were unrealistic ciphers, that they only appealed to a cineaste elite who could grasp all of their classic Hollywood references.
And this might be the film that you can most easily level those criticisms at. Although not for me: I loved it when it came out, and I still think it’s terrific.
Watching it now, what I was most struck by was how you can see some of their future films gestating. The Hudsucker Proxy is, in my view, the proto Big Lebowski; it has a manic pace, a bombardment of gags, a nonsense and complex plot, and a protagonist who is a bit of a dope, except when he’s not. There’s even a fantastical dream sequence. All of these ideas would come back, in a different framework, in Lebowski a few years later.
But this film has a lot to offer in its own right, including some wonderful performances. My favourites are Paul Newman, fully dialled in, in a rare comic role, and Jenifer Jason Leigh as the fast talking career gal straight out of an old screwball comedy (some of the negative reviews of this point out, pedantically, that she is more of a 1930s archetype, and this film is set in the 1950s; I mean: JESUS CHRIST). This is also one of the Coens most flamboyantly shot films, and Roger Deakins’ camera is often on the move. The ‘Blue Letter’ delivery alone, has more style in three minutes than most films have in their full run time.
At the centre of the movie is an incredible sequence, showing the design, creation, roll out and sudden craze popularity of the hula hoop. A bravura ten minutes of pure cinema, frenetically edited, that is just a non stop deluge of bits; my favourite is probably the ‘Creative Bullpen’ (The Shazzamater! The Daddy O!), although I love that the hoop has to be explosion tested as well. And! I love that after a thousand accountants sweat to figure out the price, the head of this area shakes his head and adds a ‘1’. Let’s be clear: I love ALL of this part.
The ending stretches for some emotional resonance that works well enough for me, but I could see why this wouldn’t work for some people: it hasn’t really been earned. This IS the Coens just riffing on their favourite old Hollywood stuff, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s just a tonne of fun.