Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: Midnight Special pays inspired tribute to the work of both Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. In its honor, we’re recommending excellent homages to other films and filmmakers.
The recent Coen brothers picture Hail, Caesar! uses its Hollywood setting to offer a dizzying array of genre homages and pastiches. The Coen versions of musicals, drawing-room dramas, B-movie Westerns, Esther Williams-style water ballets, and biblical epics aren’t necessarily notable for their exacting period-perfect accuracy; they’re more like the Coens’ stylized dream versions of old movies. They employed a feature-length application of this strategy over two decades earlier for The Hudsucker Proxy, which at the time of its 1994 release was a major boondoggle but has since found an appreciative cult. (In other words, it’s a Coen brothers movie.)
Though set in 1958, Hudsucker takes many of its cues from movies of the decade before: Frank Capra Americana and fast-talking screwball, neither of which were particularly in vogue by ’58. For that matter, neither genre tended to indulge the kind of high-style art-deco nuttiness the Coens and co-writer/second unit director Sam Raimi bring to their portrayal of Manhattan business empire Hudsucker Industries. Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), a naïf from Muncie, gets a job in the Hudsucker mailroom just as founder Waring Hudsucker (Coen mainstay Charles Durning) jumps out the 44th floor (45th counting the mezzanine) to his doom, becoming “the most liquid businessman on the street.” Barnes gets ensnared by a plot by Hudsucker’s right-hand man Sid Mussburger (Paul Newman) to tank company stock—which backfires when Barnes produces a wildly successful invention.
Barnes’ rapid ascent to the boardroom also attracts the attention of reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Leigh’s performance is one of the most divisive elements of the film; it’s also its most specific act of tribute, as she does a clear imitation of the cadences of Katharine Hepburn in general and the blinding speed of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday in particular. It’s a high-wire act, and Leigh marches across without pausing to look down; here’s one instance where “mannered” is an unambiguous compliment. Her motormouthed routine is just one of the languages the movie speaks fluently and joyously. The Coens also communicate in several glorious montages: of Barnes’ manufactured, laughter-scored rise to power, and of the production, near-flop, and success of his ingenious invention (“You know, for kids!”).
Hudsucker, then, isn’t really a faithful recreation of a 1940s screwball comedy; it’s a screwier, more surreal, and vastly more expensive fantasy of ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s culture mashed together. Like a lot of Coen pictures, it’s both distinct from their other films while recognizably of a piece with their style and interests. They can pay as much homage as they want to old movies, but the end result is still a Coen brothers film first, and delightfully.
Availability: The Hudsucker Proxy is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon or possibly your local video store/library. It’s also available to rent or purchase from the major digital outlets.