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In the last twenty years, no popular filmmakers have divided audiences as have writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen. They've bounced back and forth between satiric comedies and mordant stories in which the humorous content is sometimes almost painful. A familiar complaint of the dissenting faction is a perception that the Coen Brothers are "elite filmmakers" that sneer at the common rural folk in their pictures. Their comedies do indeed make fun of trailer trash cretins, gentle North Dakotans and goofy yahoos from the Depression-era South. Still, the brothers don't play favorites. Aging slackers in Los Angeles and flaky urban opportunists in Washington D.C. are the butt of just as many merciless jokes. All the Coen Brothers are doing is comparing the reality of life in America to its idealized cultural images. H.I. and Edwina dream of a happy family at a perfect Thanksgiving, which is all any Coen heroes seem to want. Finding happiness isn't easy.
The Coens began by playing a variation on neo-noir murder tales, advanced to crime stories and then did an artsy critique of a radical writer lost in a Kafka-like maze. Between those films and the mainstream success Fargo they made a wild stab at a broad farce seeking to emulate classic comedies of the 1930s and '40s. The result is mixed. 1994's The Hudsucker Proxy has some of the funniest comedy material of their career, tamed a bit by one or two thudding miscalculations.
The story is a road-to-success fairy tale in the classic Americana mold. The time is 1958 but most everything we see could be from 1935.
Enthusiastic, somewhat thickheaded business school graduate Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) lands a horrifyingly oppressive mailroom job at Hudsucker Industries. The firm is doing land-office business when its founder Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning) flaps his lid and commits suicide. As the rules dictate that the dead man's majority stock holdings must be sold to the public, conniving VeePee Sidney J. Mussberger (Paul Newman) schemes to make the company look worthless. A chance meeting with the earnest Norville provides the answer. Norville becomes the company's new president and the stock plummets. Seeking the inside story on Hudsucker's new 'wonder boy', hard-bitten reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) gets a job as Norville's secretary, and decides that he's an incompetent boob. Norville's "bright idea" for the company convinces everyone that he's a total idiot, so Mussberger okays a massive production program guaranteed to bury Hudsucker Industries in red ink. But ... that's not how things work out.
The Coens wrote their fractured fairy tale about the myths of American industry at least ten years earlier, inspired by a hilariously sick newspaper headline about a suicide in New York City: "BANANA KING DROPS 44 FLOORS". 1 The movie's central image is a skyscraper suicide bid, the myth borne of the Wall Street Crash. Decked out in ostentatious production design and moving at a breakneck pace, The Hudsucker Proxy is a mythical movie dream combining Frank Capra's populist hokum with Preston Sturges' slapstick and a heavy helping of (sometimes) discordant stylized performances.
With a smile that lights up rooms, star Tim Robbins gives Norville Barnes a delightful attitude of good-natured optimism. Oblivious to the cynicism and misery around him at Hudsucker, Norville keeps showing off his fantastic sketch of his great idea, his "ticket upstairs." It's a simple circle, nothing more, accompanied by Norville's totally uncommunicative explanation: "You know, for kids!" The Coens surround Norville with numerous cartoon characters, all drawn from separate movie-myth styles. The mailroom and its tortured Proles are an industrial nightmare out of Brazil. The company's hierarchy evokes the setup in the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, with Hudsucker Industries far more brutal than Worldwide Wickets ever was. Norville is screamed at by one harassed supervisor (Christopher Darga) and razzed by the nervy elevator operator, Buzz (Jim-True), who continues to give him grief even after his promotion: "Hi! My name's Buzz, I got the fuzz, I make the elevator do what she does!" Paul Newman's cocksure boardroom boss is abrasive, two-faced and aggressively greedy. Only seconds have passed since old Waring Hudsucker "merged with the infinite" but Sidney is already planning his selfish path to total ownership.
The overall tone is cartoonish and goofy. Norville and Sidney create a classic slapstick scene in Sidney's enormous office, with an important contract either going up in flames or blowing out the window, and Norville hopping around with one foot stuck in a burning trash can. Conversations play like comic routines from old-time radio. The story's fantastic framework is established with a glorious, impossible trucking shot through the Manhattan skyscrapers on a snowy night, which immediately brings to mind Capra's near-suicide epics Meet John Doe and It's a Wonderful Life. Tending the giant Hudsucker Clock is a fantasy character named Moses (Bill Cobbs). Not only is Moses functionally omniscient, his clock has the power to freeze time, as in a Merrie Melodies cartoon.
The Hudsucker Proxy makes no false moves until the romantic angle enters, at which point the Coens take their pastiche of '30s movie iconograpy one cliché too far. The underrated, genuinely fearless actress Jennifer Jason Leigh took on one impossible role after another in the 1980s, often involving extremes of brutality or sexual frankness. Here she's tasked to do a full-on imitation of Katharine Hepburn in fast-talking hardboiled patter mode. Leigh is accurate and sharp, but the concept doesn't work; her motor-mouthed performance looks like work, not fun. The scenes with John Mahoney and Bruce Campbell in the newsroom seem forced. We've already had enough frenetic activity back at Hudsucker, and Leigh's scenes add little but noise. There's also not a lot of charm in the Amy Archer - Norville Barnes romance. Their running gag with the Muncie cheer grates (it seems a lift from How to Succeed as well), and Amy's guilty misgivings when she realizes what a heel she's been don't have the effect they should. This doesn't seem to be any fault of the actors, only the filmmaker's concept. The Coens' comedy judgment hits far more often than it misses, but this part of The Hudsucker Proxy is mainly induces headaches.
On the other hand, the Coens couldn't handle Norville Barnes' success story better. Norville's "extruded plastic dingus" is none other than the hula hoop, the toy craze of 1958-'59 that indeed stood out as a marketing miracle. In full '30s montage mode, we see the hoop's manufacture, distribution and apparent failure... until one little boy discovers its marvelously brainless appeal ("You know, for kids!"). The Hula Hoop's charm is inexplicable, as proven by the 101 pointless questions posed by the Hudsucker executives. But everybody wants one. Norville Barnes is a roaring success and so is Hudsucker Industries -- much to the horror of Sidney Mussberger.
I classify The Hudsucker Proxy as a refreshing comedy that gets about 90% of the way to greatness. Many people just don't cotton to its flip style, which attempts to distill the essence from old movie conventions. Success is represented by a (seemingly) rocket-powered ascent in an express elevator, and failure by an endless plummet into the streets below. The romantic story may not gel but the Coens redeem their cynicism with a streak of genuine sentiment. Waring Hudsucker's reappearance as an angel is a welcome delight, and a midnight battle in the clock chamber ends the show on an exciting note. At this writing the Coens' The Big Lebowski reigns as their most fondly remembered comedy, but The Hudsucker Proxy still has charms of its own. Look for Lebowski's Steve Buscemi in a bit as a bored bartender...
Warners' Blu-ray of The Hudsucker Proxy is being promoted through its Warner Archives label, but the disc itself appears to be a standard Blu-ray. The HD transfer is immaculate, allowing a fine appreciation of the film's rich visual designs and refined special effects. Carter Burwell's amusing music score is something you'll notice more on a second viewing.
The film's stylish, artistic effects work is poised between the photochemical and CG eras, with an elaborate miniature New York setting the film's tone distinctly apart from reality. The movie also uses a number of matte paintings in a pleasingly subtle way.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Hudsucker Proxy Blu-ray rates:
1. I can corroborate this because, while he was working in Disney animation in the late 1970s, Randall William Cook displayed the whole page of the newspaper on his office wall. It really existed, even though it sounds like a joke.
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