HOOP AND GLORY

When we watch American films made from the late 30s to the early 60s, we may often find them naive and quaint, but it would be a mistake to imagine that these qualities represented the people who made these films. The fact is that the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood was, above all, the golden age of slickness. With the exception of Steven Spielberg and the Coens themselves, it would be hard to find current directors as skilled in what might be called cinematic shorthand as such old-timers as Capra, Hawks, Raoul Walsh or Michael Curtiz, although many current directors far exceed all of those men as artists.

Perhaps that's what the Coens are getting at here--that Capra was sharp and calculating, albeit benignly so; that he was no Jimmy Stewart Everyman. But if so, this film is an affectionate deconstruction, down to its movie-reflexive title (Newman once played Hud; Robbins, here, is his sucker). It's possible to enjoy Hudsucker either as a gentle spoof, or, at face value, as a sentimental tale, in a way that it wouldn't be if the Coens were trying to savage Capra, as every brilliant but sour foot of Barton Fink was devoted to savaging the Odets-style WPA playwright. That film said that any artist who believed that his work might have social significance must obviously be a fool, if not a villain--it was like a defense of their whole careers.

Even in this new film, the Coens don't neglect to subject Norville to a variety of humiliations, which provides a few dreary longueurs toward the end of the film. But the buoyant, optimistic feel of that aforementioned central montage is what one takes from The Hudsucker Proxy. The Coens seem to allow, with mild irony, that a dreamer's dopey notions might at least provide society with something fun--you know . . . for kids. Maybe the Coens are growing up a little, after all.

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