More than anything, Joel and Ethan Coen fear being taken seriously. Barton Fink’s pompous playwright is superficially styled as a parody of Clifford Odets, but in retrospect—and particularly in light of the game-changing A Serious Man—Barton emerges as a kind of negative self-portrait, embodying the Coens’ morbid terror of their own pretensions. But I’m spouting off again.
The Hudsucker Proxy is one of the Coens’ most outwardly frivolous movies, part of a group of ill-received farces that includes Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers and Burn After Reading. But it’s often in their farces—where audiences least expect it and critics are most likely to overlook it—that the brothers grapple with some of their darkest themes. In Burn After Reading as in No Country for Old Men, innocent people are murdered without reason, but in Burn After Reading, the universe laughs.
Hudsucker isn’t shy about announcing its preoccupations. As the camera floats through a transparently erszatz cityscape, narrator Bill Cobbs, his voice a sly parody of Morgan Freeman’s folksy drawl, fixes the time at seconds before midnight on New Year’s Eve, with “ol’ daddy earth fixin’ to start one more trip ’round the sun.” We close in on the luminous orb of a massive clock face atop an art deco skyscraper, sandwiched between the stone-carved legend “Hudsucker Industries” and the neon-scripted motto below: “The Future Is Now.” As the calendar is poised to turn over and wipe the slate clean, the people below, Cobb says, are "trying to catch hold of one moment in time—to be able to say, 'Right now, this is it. I got it.' ’Course by then it’ll be passed."
Hudsucker’s suicide leaves a void at the top, which scheming VP Sidney J. Mussburger (a gloriously gruff Paul Newman) conspires to fill with Robbins’ dewy sap, driving down the company’s stock price so the board—a long, gleaming conference-room table filled with elderly white men whose eyebrows stretch to the sky—can buy up Hudsucker’s shares on the cheap. But idiot that he is, Norville Barnes has one great idea, sketched on a yellowed piece of paper he keeps folder up in his shoe. Norville’s concept sketch is an unadorned circle, one of many populating Hudsucker’s symbolically overladen cosmos, but to him its ingenuity is self-evident. Once installed as a clueless patsy, he proudly whips it out to show to the board, his pitch consisting of a simple wide-eyed phrase: “You know, for kids!”
Norville’s circle turns out to be the hula hoop, whose transformation from company-sinking boondoggle to unstoppable fad is chronicled in a giddy, wordless sequence at Hudsucker’s center. Once again, fate takes a heavy hand. A frustrated storekeeper chucks an armful of unsold hoops out his front door; one separates itself from the pack and rolls several city blocks, finally coming to rest at the feet of an inquisitive boy. He picks it up, slips it experimentally around his hips, and starts it spinning. (That the hula hoop’s journey is accomplished without recourse to CGI increases the feeling of fortuitousness; you know the take used is one among dozens where the hero hoop spun out of frame or crashed ingloriously to earth.) A mob of schoolchildren running home after the last bell come upon the boy, and the hula hoop becomes an overnight sensation. Norville’s idiot has become a savant.
Sam Adams writes for the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Time Out New York, the Onion A.V. Club, and the Philadelphia City Paper. Follow him on Twitter.