When it comes to the Coens, probably more so than most filmmakers, my reaction s to their films seem to be the opposite of the consensus. The Hudsucker Proxy is probably the best example of this; widely considered one of their worst films and a flop at the box office in ’94, it’s actually one of my favorite films of their’s so far.
When Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning) leaps to his death from the forty-fourth floor of Hudsucker Industries in New York, his second in command Sidney Mussburger (Paul Newman) and the rest of the board need to appoint a successor. On the very same day, a naive young graduate of the Munsie College of Business Administration named Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) arrives in New York with a big idea but no experience. He lands himself a job in the Hudsucker mail room. Mussburger, looking to depreciate the company’s stock so he and the rest of the board can buy it up cheap after its released to the public, appoint Barnes as the president of the company. Mussburger takes him for a total idiot, and he’s not the only one. Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a fast-talking reporter for the Manhattan Argus publicizes his idiocy all over town, helping the stock prices sink even lower. To everyone’s surprise, Barnes’ big idea turns out to be more profitable than anyone could guess.
The film this most reminds me of is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and it takes quite a bit from Frank Capra and other 30s and 40s screwball comedies. The clash between the naive and mostly clueless Barnes and the out for profit Mussburger and Amy Archer is very much out of that earlier Capra film. Furthermore, like Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life, the film is pervaded over by God and his angels, who don’t really want people to be committing suicide so much. While the film does have so many influences it is still, to me, entirely a Coens picture. This one particularly helped me see a lot of what I like about their work.
I’ve always felt at odds with the Coens, or perhaps more accurately the critical reception they get. While I concede they are good films, it’s hard for me to get through their darker stuff like No Country for Old Men or Fargo. I know the film nerd part of me ins supposed to love these films, but I really don’t. I’d much rather see something along the lines of this or Hail, Caesar!, or my personal favorite O Brother, Where Art Thou? Not because they are inherently better movies per se, but for me at least they seem more Coenesque because of their humorous sense of the absurd. Just because you like something doesn’t mean you like everything about it, and this sense is definitely what I’ve realized that I like about them. (Though I’m definitely going to have to revisit Inside Llewyn Davis and see how that fits into to all this.)
But back to The Hudsucker Proxy. Aside from its obvious love of older films (which I also love), the thing about it that I most appreciated was its wholehearted establishment of a specific world for these characters to inhabit. The most frequent criticism of this film seems to be that it puts style over substance, which may in fact be true. It seemed to me that the style was so fully and completely realized, and I dug it anyway, that It made me love the movie. From the opening frame to the ending credits, you are completely immersed in this strange and unique place that only the Coens could have created.
What does make this world so special, you may ask. It’s specific and equal parts delightful and disheartening. It is a world contained almost entirely in a single building, a world where executives can witness Hudsucker kick his back foot like a bull, run down a table with a runway stripe in the middle, and crash out of the window to his death without blinking an eye. Almost everything is black, brown, gray, and shades of blue. The building is dominated by a huge clock, which somehow seems to contain the forces of good and evil, God and Satan. It’s a world where seemingly no one cares about each other, but it comes as a welcome surprise when it turns out they do.
This could not be possible without the A++ production design by Dennis Gassner and cinematography by the Coens’ regular collaborator, the great Roger Deakins. The period details are great, even though the film takes place in an abstract “past” that doesn’t directly coincide with the late 50s the film is set in or the 30s of the fashions and art deco buildings, but some mythical past that the Coens are so fond of bringing to life. Everything from the towering clock to the steam fueled basement mail room is miraculous of one whole. And the special effects during all those building dives!
It saddens me a bit that this film is considered a such a failure. I had such a great time with this film and wish more people could have had one as well. I see why they might not though; The Hudsucker Proxy is a very artificial and stylized film, and if the strange tone hits you the wrong way it would be easy to be put off by the movie. Whichever way you slice it, the style is fully realized. I found it delightful.
Long story short: 3.5/4
“You know…. for kids!”
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