Friday, December 3, 2010

Understanding Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (The Hudsucker Proxy)

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) is The Coen Brothers' third period film in a row.  While the construction of its world is more elaborate, dense, and impressive in some ways than that of Miller's Crossing (1990) or Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy also has the most problematic approach to history of any Coen film to this point.  Miller's Crossing had some anachronistic dialogue (which isn't atypical of period films in general), but its conflation of gangster film tropes from several decades seemed purposeful, since the genre enjoyed its first highpoints in the '30s and '40s and was based around real-world events from the '20s.  Barton Fink similarly borrowed stylistic and historic elements from the '30s and '40s, but the tight focus on that film's titular character – to the point that the events of the plot may have been taking place in his head - basically negated the need to stick to a realistic depiction of its setting.  With The Hudsucker Proxy, The Coen Brothers don't seem to be indifferent to or contemptuous of history so much as unaware of it, which makes the use of their usual "people are stupid" theme especially unconvincing and unfair.

Hudsucker Industries founder Charles Durning unexpectedly commits suicide during a board meeting by jumping out of a window in one of the top floors of the company's massive skyscraper.  Facing the threat of stockholders taking control of the company, vice president Paul Newman and his board of directors hatch a scheme to take their power back and make a lot of money in the process:  they'll hire a rube to sit in as president, so that when the stock inevitably plummets, they can buy it back at a low price.  Their mark is small-town boy Tim Robbins, a buffoonish mailroom employee who dreams of mass-marketing the world's first hula hoop.  Local reporter Jennifer Jason Leigh suspects that something is wrong at the company, and poses as an aspiring Hudsucker employee to get close to Robbins and uncover what the company is up to.

All of this is supposed to be taking place during 1958 and 1959, but you'd never know it if the characters didn't occasionally bring it up.  The art deco look of the sets comes from the '20s (with the massive clock tower evoking Harold Lloyd), but the character's costumes are straight out of the '40s, and their fast-paced banter is clearly modeled after the screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s.  Aside from the invention of the hula hoop, and some passing nods to beatnik culture, there is virtually nothing about the film's plot, scenery, or characterization that calls to mind either the real 1950s or the movies of the '50s.  This wouldn't be such a big problem if the film was aiming for a feeling of timelessness or making a larger satirical point, two things that Terry Gilliam's Brazil (which clearly had a large influence on the visuals of The Hudsucker Proxy) manages to achieve with its pastiche of different eras.  But The Coens don't do anything with the various tropes that they've reconfigured for this film.  The Coens' carefully crafted setpieces and dialogue have an ironic, cynical distance to them, but they aren't trotting out various clichés because they have anything to say about them so much as because they can score some easy laughs from the "hip" modern audience.

There are undeniably some laughs to be had in The Hudsucker Proxy – Robbins proudly busting out his blueprint for the hula hoop (literally a drawing of a circle) is a good recurring gag, and the script (co-written by Sam Raimi) has some of The Coens' finest absurdist dialogue to date ("I do remember, and I was impressed, but that's all forgotten now").  The set design is impressively detailed even by Coen standards, and some of the visuals, such as a warehouse full of colorful hula hoops, are worthy of Dr. Seuss.  But the spectacular effects dim as it becomes clear that The Coens don't really have anything to say with this story.  A lot of the recurring jokes, like the ridiculously caffeinated banter of the newsroom, are funny the first time they show up, vaguely amusing the second time, and then increasingly shrill as the film limps closer to its conclusion. 

The complete lack of investment in the characters prevents the growing romance between Robbins and Leigh from gaining any steam, largely because the filmmakers lack the imagination (or interest in humanity) to turn their stereotypical characters into plausible human beings.  The Coens obviously intended to mock the outmoded clichés of old movies, but because they don't have anything of substance to say about them, it often seems like they are resurrecting old chestnuts simply because they can't come up with anything original themselves.  For example, Bill Cobbs' supernaturally wise maintenance man is probably supposed to be a parody of the "magical negro," but it's hard to parse how much the film is making fun of this stereotype and how much it's reinforcing it.  You can't really make a "knowing" film if you don't know anything.

UP NEXT  Fargo

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