Today an essay I wrote & edited about The Hudsucker Proxy ran over at Rogerebert.com. Today Philip Seymour Hoffman died. Today Eduardo Coutinho was killed. A few days ago it was Pete Seeger, Maximilian Schell and Miklós Jancsó. I have no energy to write. Nothing to say. I'm defeated by all of this. I'm going to post some thoughts I'd already written about Hudsucker because I want to do something with myself before I retire from today, content as I am to watch The Long Day Closes and not speak another word. It really was a shit day. Today we need cinema.
After years of hearing about what a joyless slog Intolerable Cruelty was, imagine my surprise when I discovered it was a delicious confectionary of expertly crafted wordplay and near-explosive levels of chemistry between its two quite flappable leads. "How had this happened?" I wondered, while laughing my ass off, "how could a film this good by America's cinematic sweethearts have been swept under the rug like that?" The Coen Brothers were at least used to that sort of disappointment. After all, they'd made The Hudsucker Proxy. Intolerable Cruelty is a delight, to be true, an homage to Howard Hawks, Leo McCary and Preston Sturges' comedies of remarriage centering appropriately enough on a divorce attorney who tastes his own bitter medicine and as well as it works just as well as tribute and stand alone comedy (George Clooney's comedic prowess never gets enough notice for my liking). Next to Hudsucker, however, Intolerable looks more like the work of Mitchell Leisen than Preston Sturges. Sturges was the genuine article in American comedy. In his best films, The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, Hail The Conquering Hero and Unfaithfully Yours (As long as we're sticking up for the underdog here I'll just say that Unfaithfully Yours is a gem and I will hear no one besmirch it), he balanced humour so bold you wonder how it slipped past the censors, scabrous satire of values unique to wartime America and romance that shot past heartwarming into gripping. He had such a perfect hand with sentiment that he could appear to be making fun of the very notion of it, even as he freely indulged. He was one of a kind. But leave it to The Coen Brothers to make a film that pretends to his throne and earns the right to sit there. Painstakingly crafted through nostalgia-colored glasses and set in a place we recognize as our past but in no definite moment (despite the assurance that we're in the 1958 of Coen favourite Separate Tables), corporate stooge Tim Robbins rockets to the top of a toy company despite having no knowledge of the job or that he's being set up for a literal and metaphorical fall by his handler, a never-sleazier Paul Newman, cashing in on his impossible-to-dislike irascibility and charm. The boardroom antics, Sturges-esque wordplay and bureaucratic chutes-and-ladders are hilarious, but once Jennifer Jason Leigh enters the story, this stops being a comedy no one laughed at and becomes a masterpiece whose failure isn't just baffling, it's a tragedy on par with the sinking of the Titanic, the execution of the Rosenbergs or the cancellation of Pushing Daisies. Leigh's portrayal of a savvy journalist who goes undercover to scoop Robbins' rise to fame mirrors Jean Arthur in Mr. Deeds Goes To Town but without hiding her unscrupulousness so disingenuously as Frank Capra does. It's a testament to the Coen's writing and feather-light direction (rendered on resplendent art deco production design, for my money their best, through the prism of Roger Deakins dark-matter-heavy photography) that they pursue a route that out-bleaks famous Scrooges like Capra and Sturges, and still manages to seem more lighthearted than Meet John Doe or Unfaithfully Yours, which flirt with murder and suicide as aggressively as Leigh does with Robbins. Leigh's feisty journalist is a more endearing proto-feminist trouser-sporter than Cate Blanchet's Hepburn impersonation; better still, she brings a soft sexuality to her role that outstrips even the Claudette Colberts and Barbara Stanwycks of the golden age, and again, genuinely. Through the performance, through her palpably masked longing, through her robust personality. She maybe a shade of fast-talking-dames past, but she's a fully realized character, and if you don't want to marry her by the time the credits role, you must be a Franklin Pangborn character. Or worse, William Demarest. I still marvel at the level of detail that went into making Hudsucker Proxy such a loving, feel-good tribute to loving, feel-good comedies so dipped in sarcasm you could drown in it. And that's even without taking into account how fucking funny it is. It's that rare film that gets nearly everything right (wouldn't be on this list if it were actually perfect). When the film failed at the box office, I bet Preston Sturges took a belt for both Joel and Ethan Coen in auteur heaven. "Don't worry, boys. They didn't get me, either."