DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: The Hudsucker Proxy

Monday, 9 January 2012

The Hudsucker Proxy

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) dir Joel Coen
Starring: Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Newman


By Alan Bacchus

If there was a support group for fans of The Hudsucker Proxy, 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 about 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 and 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 - 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), the 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 and Edward G. Robinson exchanges of the past, the dialogue zings along at 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, as 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, it's 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 hope 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.


Anonymous said...

Sign me up for a club membership in the support group since this has always been my favorite of the Coens' output!

Maximum Adventure said...

Funny, I did a piece on the social aspects of the Hudsucker Proxy just today: http://bpmforreal.com/2012/01/09/social-technique-and-the-hudsucker-proxy-bpm-socialbpm/