Just as Norville Barns lands a dull job in the mailroom of the Hudsucker corporation, the firm's founder is taking a suicide leap from the top floor. In order to take control of the business, the board must force shares to decrease in value rapidly, so they put Norvill in charge.
The Brothers Coen, director Joel and producer Ethan, are the most exciting contemporary filmmakers never to have had a crossover hit. All their films from Blood Simple via Raising Arizona to Barton Fink have been frankly brilliant, laden with awards and adored by critics, but the mass audience has never been there. Here, collaborating with uberproducer Joel Silver and co-writer Sam Raimi, the Coens go for an archetypally populist story but tell it in an arcane style that won't disappoint their fans but will prove hard to take for many.
Evoking the Hollywood urban fairytales of Howard Hawks or Frank Capra, this is set in a magical New York in 1959 where Norville Barnes (Robbins) arrives to take a job in the mailroom of the monolithic Hudsucker Industries just as the firm's founder (Charles Durning) takes a suicide leap from the top floor. Executive Mussberger (Newman) reasons that the board can only take control of the company if they make the stock plummet until they can afford to buy it, so he recruits the mooncalf Norville as the company's new president. A hard-bitten lady journo (Leigh, doing a neat Katharine Hepburn-cum-Rosalind Russell turn) exposes Norville, feels guilty about it and then falls for him, and the empty-headed genius' stupid idea turns out to be the hula hoop, whose instant success sends Hudsucker stock rising and prompts Mussberger to extreme dirty trickery.
The Silver influence can be seen in the sheer scale of the production, reflected in the amazing architecture of the Hudsucker Building, which is half-Metropolis and half-Gotham City with a giant clock that relates to the inner workings of the universe. While the story and the characters are perfect pastiche, making them hard to be involved with, human warmth is imported by the sheer joy of the directorial flourishes. Always a master of the set-piece, Joel Coen stages a remarkable montage illustrating the snowballing of the 50s hoop craze. He also pulls off a wonderful side-trip into fantasy as Durning's angelic ghost shows up in the finale to influence the outcome of the plot.
The dark vision of Blood Simple or Barton Fink is mellowed slightly by the comic by-play and the oddly innocent, though corruptible, romantic leads. Like all Coen films, this has a human character who represents a demonic force (the Devil here is a little man who scrapes dead execs' names off their office doors), but it tries for balance by including an angelic time-keeper who helps restore the order of the universe. While not to everyone's tastes, this is without doubt one of the most exhilarating films of the year.
While not to everyone's tastes, this is without doubt one of the most exhilarating films of 1994.
Reviewed by Kim Newman