Jul 25, 2010

24FPS Top 100 Films: No.73

DIR: Joel Coen [and Ethan Coen]

Why is it on the list?
The Hudsucker Proxy may not be the Coen Brothers best film, but for my money it is certainly the funniest and the most underrated work of their 25-year plus career. It’s a rather out of time film, belonging in both design and genre more to the 1940’s than the 1990’s. It’s a screwball comedy, in the genre’s heyday it could have starred the likes of Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn or Jean Arthur opposite some solid leading man in the James Stewart or Cary Grant mould. This being the 90’s those people weren’t available, so instead we get Tim Robbins as young inventor Norville Barnes who, thanks to the suicide of a corporation head and an attempted takeover by his right hand man (Paul Newman), finds himself president of Hudsucker Industries and Jennifer Jason Leigh as fast talking reporter Amy Archer, out to get the scoop on Barnes.

The Coen’s quirky sense of humour runs right through the script, whose razor sharp dialogue effortlessly mirrors that of the best of the films that inspired it. Perhaps the masterstroke is the very simple, but always effective, joke at the film’s very centre; that of Norville’s ‘extruded plastic dingus’ invention, the schematic and pitch for which amount to a piece of paper with a circle on it and Norville’s enthused “Y’know, for kids”. Whenever the dingus is the focus of a scene hilarity is all but guaranteed.

However good a screenplay you’ve got, it doesn’t play without a strong cast and though at this stage in their careers the Coens weren’t in the rarefied position they now enjoy in the industry they were still able to call on an excellent ensemble cast ranging from character players like Charles Durning and Bill Cobbs to old pals like Bruce Campbell and Jim True and from (then) rising stars Tim Robbins and Jennifer Jason Leigh to the legend that is Paul Newman.

Of the central trio, Robbins has the largest role. As Barnes his bumbling, gangly, charm works very nicely and for a smart man he plays dumb in a way that is both endearing and believeable. As much fun as Robbins’ turn is, Jennifer Jason Leigh is a fast talking whirlwind in this movie and she just runs away with the film. She’s channelling Rosalind Russell’s character from His Girl Friday, but has given her Katharine Hepburn’s voice. The amazing thing about Leigh’s performance is just how much of it there is in the amount of time she’s on screen. She blasts through the dialogue at 100 miles per hour, never seeming to pause and draw breath, but also without stepping on a single syllable or allowing a punchline to miss. Even more impressively, Bruce Campbell has said that he was intimidated by Leigh, not just because she nailed the performance so thoroughly but because she was letter perfect every take.

Just because Leigh steals the film that isn’t to say that the other performances aren’t great. I’m especially fond of some of the smaller performances; Charles Durning’s surprisingly sunny turn as Waring Hudsucker, for example, and Jim True as Buzz the wisecracking elevator operator. Neither is in the film for long, but both make a real impression. Paul Newman has a great deal of fun as the scheming Sidney Mussburger, contributing an amusingly slimy performance.

The film’s look is pretty astonishing, with a scale (and a price tag) that had previously eluded the Coens. Dennis Gassner’s production design is huge, beautiful, detailed and entirely in keeping with the period, and Roger Deakins does the exceptional design work (especially on the huge clock set) full justice with his customarily stunning cinematography, but this is really a showcase for the brilliant wit of the Coen brothers and for their typically eclectic and accomplished cast. All in all, The Hudsucker Proxy is the best kind of throwback; it reminds you of why you love the films that inspired it, but it’s also able to stand on its own as a great film and great fun.

Standout Scenes
The sketch
Any and every time we see Norville’s invention as a design it’s just priceless.

A Muncie girl
Wanting to get close to Norville, Amy pretends to be from his hometown, and sings the Muncie High School fight song with him.

“The Hoopsucker”
A very funny sequence in which three marketers (shot in silhouette) attempt to name the ‘extruded plastic dingus’.

Memorable Lines
Amy Archer: Finally there would be a thingamajig that would bring everyone together, even if it kept them apart spatially.

Mail Room Orienter: You punch in at 8:30 every morning, except you punch in at 7:30 following a business holiday, unless it's a Monday, then you punch in at 8 o'clock. Punch in late and they dock you. Incoming articles get a voucher, outgoing articles provide a voucher. Move any article without a voucher and they dock you. Letter size a green voucher, oversize a yellow voucher, parcel size a maroon voucher. Wrong color voucher and they dock you! 6787049A/6. That is your employee number. It will not be repeated! Without your employee number you cannot get your paycheck. Inter-office mail is code 37, intra-office mail 37-3, outside mail is 3-37. Code it wrong and they dock you! This has been your orientation. Is there anything you do not understand, is there anything you understand only partially? If you have not been fully oriented, you must file a complaint with personnel. File a faulty complaint and they dock you!

[Norville Barnes introduces the "extruded plastic dingus" to the board members]
Board Member 1: What if you tire before it's done?
Board Member 2: Does it have rules?
Board Member 3: Can more than one play?
Board Member 4: What makes you think it's a game?
Board Member 3: Is it a game?
Board Member 5: Will it break?
Board Member 6: It better break eventually!
Board Member 2: Is there an object?
Board Member 1: What if you tire before it's done?
Board Member 5: Does it come with batteries?
Board Member 4: We could charge extra for them.
Board Member 7: Is it safe for toddlers?
Board Member 3: How can you tell when you're finished?
Board Member 2: How do you make it stop?
Board Member 6: Is that a boy's model?
Board Member 3: Can a parent assemble it?
Board Member 5: Is there a larger model for the obese?
Board Member 1: What if you tire before it's done?
Board Member 8: What the hell is it?

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