American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Editor's note: This is the latest in Scout Tafoya's video series "The Unloved," which appreciates films that he thinks have artistic merit despite having been thrashed by critics on first release. His first installment was on David Fincher's "Alien 3." His second installment was on "John Carter." This one is about Joel and Ethan Coen's 1994 comedy "The Hudsucker Proxy," the filmmaking duo's most expensive flop and perhaps their most critically reviled as well. Scout finds poetry in it, along with a grandiose playfulness that Hollywood films of any era rarely muster.
"In the 1930s, with developments like sound and expressionistic production design behind them, American filmmakers began to carve out a new cinematic landscape for themselves. Musicals and comedies stuffed with art deco set design went about combatting lingering ennui left over from the great depression. Their most valuable asset? New York City. Or anyway, the New York of their imagination. Nevermind Hollywood, this is where dreams were born...and often killed. Filmmakers like Preston Sturges, Busby Berkeley and Frank Capra perfected their own languages, pitting the naive against the jaded and watching the sparks fly in the shadow of skyscrapers, neon lights and a little magic you can only find in movies.
As time passed, the fabled city aged too. The world got more dirty, dangerous and populous, and so it went in films. It took a pair of Midwestern brothers, lifelong fans of Hollywood's golden age, to find the place as Capra and Sturges had left it, in all its faded glory.
"The Hudsucker Proxy" is an odd beast indeed and in its day it stood out like a sore thumb. Many critics hated its guts, calling it heartless: all style and no substance. Audiences stayed away in droves. Released between featherweight trifles like "Guarding Tess," "Monkey Trouble" and a horde of sequels to long-running franchises, comedy like this was rare indeed. It worked three times as hard as its peers and never broke a sweat.
Fusing the plots of two Capra films, "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town" and "Meet John Doe," writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen reignited the post-Depression romantic comedy for one brief, shining moment in the mid 1990s. The elements are all classics: a small-town rube in the big city; the fast-talking dame who can't help loving him; the evil plot of greedy corporate thugs; a rags-to-riches narrative, and all of it in a New York that never looked more false, or beautiful. What made "The Hudsucker Proxy" different than its reference-points was postmodernism and all that style: about an inch-thick coat of it.
Whereas the comedies of the 1930s and '40s could talk quickly and move quickly, they couldn't run at a full gallop like the Coen Brothers. Their camera soars, traveling at the speed of progress, gossip, capitalism itself. Everything races at top speed. The production design, the one thing everyone felt comfortable praising, is a marvel. Every frame doubles as a survey of early modern art, from Art Deco to Futurism.
There's a refreshing cynicism not permissible in the '30s, thanks to the Production Code keeping everything as chaste as could be. The Coens could be as gleefully dark as they wanted, knowing full well they could also be twice as sweet - a sensibility informed by Orson Welles, Chuck Jones and Terry Gilliam. "The Hudsucker Proxy" was dressed in supple colors, danced to a quick, singular rhythm, brimmed with manic momentum and was illuminated from within by an uncommon romanticism, not just toward its characters but for the films Joel and Ethan Coen grew up watching, and for a dream called New York City.--Scout Tafoya
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