| by Justin Thomas |
On another day I might argue any movie with both Paul Newman and Bruce Campbell in the cast must be the Greatest Movie of All Time, but today is not that day.
If Joel Coen and Ethan Coen aren’t the most discussed filmmakers of their generation they certainly should be on the list. When they hit the mark, their films are dizzying in quality and sure-fire bets to be evidence as to why they’ll share lifetime achievement awards in twenty years or so. When they miss the mark, they miss it wide by miles and even though the Coen style and quality might remain, they ask too much of their audience to laugh at a joke it is not in on at all. But the point is, of all their films, there are precious few that can’t inspire discussion from joy to anger and every emotion in between.
Their films I divide into two categories – Normal Movies and Indulgent Movies – and while some might straddle the line between the body of work really shakes out that way. Normal Movies would be Blood Simple, Fargo, Intolerable Cruelty, No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man. Indulgent Movies include Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn’t There and the contemptible The Ladykillers. Barton Fink I still haven’t figured out and for some reason can’t get through Miller’s Crossing but of the ones I can get my head around I slot them as such. When they decide to play with a genre rather than make a movie is when the Coens go places where it’s easy to cast them aside if they fail with the audience but, if the movie resonates, then it finds an audience that will defend it and them to the ends of the Earth.
In that filmography are two certifiable masterpieces, as good a cinematic debut as I’ve seen and a movie anchored by a White Russian swilling genius that could just as well be used as a gospel it’s so brilliant. But there are also dogs, truly awful movies that I scratch my head and argue about with others who find something to applaud in the Coens. The Ladykillers is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, a misfire on every level, one that could make the Star Wars Holiday Special look like freakin’ Gone with the Wind. Where a Coen film shakes out between Normal Movies and Indulgent Movies doesn’t indicate its quality but it does indicate the types of characters and performances will be featured.
It took a long time to get here, but Paul Newman as Sidney J. Mussburger in The Hudsucker Proxy illustrates well what’s necessary to ground the “eccentric” characters featured when Joel Coen and Ethan Coen decide to indulge themselves.
Newman plays Mussburger over-the-top as per the script and direction but he’s not playing Mussburger as aware of the fact that he’s an eccentric Coen character. Both Jennifer Jason Leigh and John Mahoney, as dependable an actor as there is, fall into that trap. They don’t only go for it, they go beyond it and don’t realize they somehow need to be grounded more than they are.
Newman absolutely gets it in every single frame. Yes, he gives the wide eyes and chomps on the cigar just enough to be big, but then he also knows there is such a thing as giving wide eyes the right way. When the explanation as to why the glass in the boardroom no longer shatters, another actor in that role might have gone bananas but Newman simply says what happened and helps sell the joke, which is quite funny. It’s not that Newman goes subtle because he doesn’t; it’s that Newman understands the difference between going over the top and going over the top the right way.
There are more examples of what Newman does across the other films by the Coens. In other hands all three main characters in The Big Lebowski – The Dude, Walter and Maude – would be Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Amy Archer in The Hudsucker Proxy, all weirded up for no reason other than to be weirded up. But Bridges, Goodman and Moore absolutely nailed their parts just as Newman nailed Mussburger. Frances McDormand could have taken Marge Gunderson somewhere else but didn’t and was rewarded, rightfully, for the effort. George Clooney’s Everett in O Brother goes just about as far with a weird character without going too far as humanly possible. Tom Hanks pulls a Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Ladykillers and completely botches it; if it’s not the worst performance of his career it has to be close.
Not even Paul Newman or the incomparable Bruce Campbell, but specifically Paul Newman, can save The Hudsucker Proxy. The film fails because the Coens made a self-aware screwball comedy; they made one that tries to be a screwball comedy rather than understand the things that made the screwball comedy work in the 1930s, the mindsets, the people, the era itself, didn’t translate sixty years later. A screwball comedy could have been made in 1994 in The Hudsucker Proxy but it couldn’t be a 1930s screwball comedy in 1994. It’s the same thing that torpedoed The Happening because it was made “bad” like the old B Movies and the same thing that prevents any modern movie attempting to be film noir to be anything other than an imposter.
Twice in their careers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen didn’t make movies they are capable of making and at the time I might have agreed with Moriarty at Ain’t It Cool when he suggested they take a break from making movies after The Ladykillers. The Hudsucker Proxy was the first time they bombed. Of course, they also followed The Hudsucker Proxy with Fargo and The Ladykillers with No Country for Old Men, so thankfully, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen ignored Moriarty. It’s good advice to ignore the insane ramblings of an Internet movie writer and it comes straight from the Coen Brothers.