I Got Big Ideas: The Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy
For me, Joel and Ethan Coen represent the confines and flexibilities of old Hollywood genres. The Coen brothers understand genre better than anyone in the business. Not just the rules, conventions, and hallmarks but also how all those things can be broken to reveal fascinating characters. Old Hollywood was a weird place, where standards of conformity led to creative directors finding ways to break new ground. The Coens expand on that by bringing new themes and ideas into comfortable genre filmmaking. In 1994, the Coens released The Hudsucker Proxy, a throwback to screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. The film is a painstaking recreation of fast-paced, quirky comedies of yore, but bringing in just enough mysticism and surrealism to make it uniquely a Coen brothers film.
Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) is an unemployed business school graduate looking for a job. He lands a mailroom job at Hudsucker Industries, where the president Waring Hudsucker (Charles During) just committed suicide by jumping out of a window during a business meeting. Board member Sidney J. Mussburger hatches a plan to stop the company’s stock shares from going to the public. In order to drive the stock value down, Mussburger installs the seemingly idiotic Norville as president so that Mussburger can buy the controlling shares. Ace Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has a hunch that the new president might be a proxy and so she goes undercover as Norville’s new secretary to expose the fraud.
The plot is classic screwball comedy: the moron who’s actually a genius, the big corporation, evil businessmen, the feisty female reporter. That’s all straight out of a Frank Capra or Howard Hawks movie. The Hudsucker Proxy takes direct inspiration from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and His Girl Friday (1940). The former film, directed by Capra, stars Gary Cooper as a simple minded man from the heartland who inherits a vast fortune from a distant relative. The film also stars Jean Arthur as a reporter who writes scathing profiles of Mr. Deeds while masquerading to him as an innocent small town girl. The Coen’s modeled The Hudsucker Proxy’s rapid-fire dialogue and goofy visual gags after Hawks’ His Girl Friday, one of the fastest comedies of all time.
The Coens pay homage to these films (and others, such as It’s a Wonderful Life) with care and an eye for detail. The film has the philosophical musings that the Coens are famous for. The recurring motif of the perfect circle suggests a life different from the rigidity of postwar America. Norville has big ideas and ambition for Hudsucker Industries. He’s an anomaly that nobody can quite figure out…just like his wacky invention the hula hoop. Amy and Norville discuss karma and Norville’s descent into becoming a corporate fat cat is treated seriously. This is classic Coen, wrapped in classic screwball.
The performances are committed, especially the three leads Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Paul Newman. The script doesn’t feel organic to them either in a few moments. The supporting cast, including John Mahoney and Bruce Campbell, are good as well, but the film’s try-hard aesthetic wears on them too. It doesn’t help that the only major character of color, Moses (Bill Cobbs), is a literal Magical Negro, a cringe-worthy cliché that did not need to be repeated in this pastiche. The Coens have always had issues with people in color in their films, unable to resist depicting them in tired stereotypes.
The Hudsucker Proxy might suffer from being too precious at times, but it is intelligent and clever. The Coens, and co-writer Sam Raimi, layer the film with interesting dialogue that reflects their worldview, with echoes and ironic juxtaposition. The look of the film is beautifully captured by Roger Deakins. The homage to the screwball comedy, however, is too self-conscious to be really effective. While the majority of The Hudsucker Proxy is quite enjoyable, there were times that the film was too cutesy and self-aware.