The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) dir Joel Coen
Starring: Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Newman
If there were a support group for “Hudsucker Proxy” fans, I’d be the first to join. For the longest time, “Hudsucker” was considered the Coens’ official ‘failure’, a big budget Joel Silver-produced critical and commercial bomb. Though “Fargo” has the praise, prestige and Oscar win attached to it, on a personal level “The Hudsucker Proxy” is my all-time favourite Coens’ film, and I’ve been taking flack for it for years.
The story is of Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), a down-on-his-luck college grad (Muncie College of Business Administration) who starts off in the mailroom of Hudsucker Industries then instantly gets promoted to CEO in an attempt by Chairman of the Board, Sidney J, Mussburger (Paul Newman) to reduce the stock price for personal gain. But Norville isn’t the imbecile Mussburger thinks he is, and he in fact, turns his simplistic idea of a round piece of plastic into the hula hoop phenomenon. Norville becomes the toast of the town, but then is brought down by a meddling newspaper reporter Amy Archer, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh by way of Katherine Hepburn. At the worst moment of his life, Norville attempts to commit suicide by jumping off the 44th floor (not counting the Mezzanine), until a moment of divine intervention brings him back to life.
It was generally agreed at the time that “Hudsucker” was the most visually stunning American film in years and arguably the claim holds up today. There’s never a dull moment. From the opening shot we're reminded of “Citizen Kane”, a long tracking shot into a large building, with lovely snow falling, a single light illuminated in the background. The city is clearly a model – like the opening push into the spinning globe in “Casablanca” - and so, right away, we’re given the rules of the film – it’s an homage to the past and a fantasy film.
The opening sequence which shows how Norville is hired by the company is tremendous. More than just a virtuoso technical exercise, it establishes the themes of the film - karma, the circle, the clock and many of the metaphors that will be repeated in the film. There are so many details to be discovered in subsequent viewings, including Mussberger’s cigar (note how the length changes throughout the film), contrasting devil and angel characters of Moses the Clock Man and Aloysius the Spy, as well as the half dozen other virtuoso moments in the film, including the mail room sequence, the Hula Hoop sequence, and the rousing finale.
Borrowing from the best Bogart, Hepburn, Grant, Bacall, Edward G. Robinson exchanges of the past, the dialogues zings along at a lightning pace – gags are disguised in between lines and over top of other lines (think “His Girl Friday” meets “Bringing Up Baby” meets “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”). It’s impossible to catch it all in one sitting. Todd McCarthy (Variety) described the film as esoteric, which is a cop-out criticism. Sure, the idea and influence is esoteric, and buffs may enjoy it on another level, but the themes are universal and inspiring. The story is remarkably tight, not a scene, line of dialogue, character, or prop is wasted. With Norville hanging in mid-air during the fight between Moses and Aloysius in the gears of the clock is a perfectly constructed climax, and includes the most clever use of a man’s dentures. Adding ample support is Carter Burwell’s usually proficient score. It’s perhaps his best, a grand series of compositions - humorous, melancholy and epic all at once.
It may come as no surprise that the film was co-written by Sam Raimi who blends his unappreciated comic touch with the Coen's style seamlessly. Of course the Coens and the Raimis have a long history with each other and I wish there will be more collaborations in the future.
The reputation of “Hudsucker” is growing with encouragement from bloggers and fanboys like me. So I think my support group would have a lot of members, but the hit we all took as fans over the years still stings, and we all need more comfort. The best you can do is watch and, hopefully, enjoy the film.
Buy it here: The Hudsucker Proxy
The Hula Hoop: