Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Written by: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen & Sam Raimi.
Starring: Tim Robbins (Norville Barnes), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Amy Archer), Paul Newman (Sidney J. Mussburger), Charles Durning (Waring Hudsucker), John Mahoney (Chief), Jim True-Frost (Buzz), Bill Cobbs (Moses), Bruce Campbell (Smitty), Harry Bugin (Aloysius), John Seitz (Benny), Joe Grifasi (Lou), Jon Polito (Mr. Bumstead), John Goodman (Newsreel Announcer).
The old style over substance bomb has been lobbed at the Coen brothers a lot over the course of their career. Often, I think the charges are unfair – because although all the Coen movies are stylized in various ways, to me they most often provide substance to match that style. But with The Hudsucker Proxy, the charge is pretty much impossible to refute – there is nothing to the movie other than its style. It’s writing, directing, production design, costumes, cinematography, music and even the performances are all pitched a level that there is no room left for anything but style. But what a tremendous style it is! Undeniably, The Hudsucker Proxy feels like the Coens simply playing around – goofing on those late 1930s, early 1940s Frank Capra comedies about a country bumpkin who comes to the big city and is taken for a rube by the wise city folk, only to reveal there is more truth to the bumpkin’s homespun wisdom. The Coens take such delight in recreating the art deco world of the time, and seem to have so much fun writing the stylized dialogue, and getting spot on performances from their cast, aping the actors of the past, that it seems like they never bothered to make the characters feel real underneath all that style. They don’t even much seem to care that the world they have recreated is suited for the 1930s and 1940s, although their story is set in the late 1950s – as is necessary because of the invention at the heart of the movie. These are problems in the movie to be sure – it’s what keeps The Hudsucker Proxy a minor Coen film. Yet they seem to be having so much fun making the film that I cannot help but have a blast watching it. I’ve seen the film four or five times now, and it never ceases to win me over.
The film’s opening scene has Hudsucker (Charles Durning) listening carefully to his board of directors who tell him that his corporation has never been more profitable – and then getting up from his chair, running down the long board room table and jumping out the window of the 44th Floor (45th, if you include the mezzanine) to his death below. It just so happens that this is the same day that our hero, Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) – the pride of Muncie, Indiana – started his job in the mailroom at Hudsucker. He is told all the things he can do that will get them to dock his pay – which is pretty much everything. He is then handed a so-called Blue Letter – something that has to be handed directly to the person it is addressed to. In this case, that is Sidney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman), Hudsucker’s second in command. With Hudsucker gone, he’s now the obvious choice to take over. But he doesn’t just want to run Hudsucker – he wants to own it. Hudsucker owned 87.5% of the stock in the company, and since he has no family, it’s to go on sale to general public in a month. Mussburger wants the stock for himself – but cannot afford to buy it. So he decides what he’ll do is to promote some idiot to run the company for a month, have the stock plummet, so he and the board can buy it cheap, and then he can take over. When Norville shows up, Blue Letter in hand, and proceeds to ruin just about everything in Mussburger’s office, he thinks he has found his idiot. The news of Hudsucker’s suicide, and the promotion of an unknown from the mailroom is all over the front pages – but intrepid reporter, and Pulitzer Prize winner, Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) smells something funky going on. So she decides to go undercover and get close to Norville to find out the real story. Things don’t quite go as planned, because while Norville is naïve, he also has an idea – a brilliant idea – that he’ll show to anyone who will listen. On a piece of paper he has drawn a circle – and when he shows it everyone, and sees the confused look on their face, he simply says “You know, for kids!”
As evidenced by their previous 4 movies, the Coen brothers love offices – and with each new film the offices got more and more elaborate and stylized from Marty’s squalor in Blood Simple, to the blue collar office of Nathan Arizona in Raising Arizona, to the dark, foreboding space of Leo’s office in Miller’s Crossing to the pristine office of Lipnick the studio boss in Barton Fink. As great as those offices are, they cannot compare to the brilliance of Mussburger’s office in The Hudsucker Proxy – it’s a huge office – the better for Robbins to do some slapstick way off in the background in his first scene there – and its window looks out through the giant clock at the top of the Hudsucker building. Mussburger’s office is the highlight of a movie that has some of the best production design of any movie the 1990s – the Coen’s take great pains to have everything look precise, and their sets are ones you could simply get lost in. Add to that the great costume work, and some of the most playful and inventive cinematography that Roger Deakins has ever done, and every frame of The Hudsucker Proxy has something wonderful to behold. The film is, if nothing else, an endless visual treat.
The performances work wonderfully as well – if not as realistic characters, than of brilliant plays on old school movie acting. Tim Robbins plays the lovable doofus Norville Barnes to perfection – he’s clearly aping Gary Cooper’s down home charm in films like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and he’s probably the only actor I can think of who could have pulled it off this wonderfully. Consider this is the same year he delivered perhaps his career best performance in the beloved Shawshank Redemption, and you can see just how much range he had. Paul Newman steps into the type of role Claude Rains played in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – chomping on a huge cigar, able to cut people down to size with a simple glare, he is an intimidating presence throughout the movie – and is clearly having a blast. Best of all is Jennifer Jason Leigh, who has studied and mastered her Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday mannerisms. True, none are really believable characters, but as performances they are still excellent – and provide just what the Coens wanted from them.
The Hudsucker Proxy never reaches the levels of the Coens best movies – I don’t think it’s even really trying to. It strikes me as a movie the brothers made just to have a good time – to revel in their love of old movies, the art deco production design, the stylized performances – and see if they could pull it off. They did. The film was seen as a disappointment back in 1994 – and it’s easy to see why. After reaching new heights with their last film – Barton Fink – it took the brothers three years to follow it up, and the result is a movie like this that seems like a step backwards for them – a film in which they are retreating to the comfort of the genre riffs of their earlier work, instead of something deeper like Fink was. I won’t deny that any of that is true. But while the pleasures offered by The Hudsucker Proxy are minor compared too much of the Coen’s output – it is still very much pleasurable.