30 Years of Coens: The Hudsucker Proxy

The “commercial” movie that wasn’t

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Coen brothers' debut, Blood Simple, I’m re-watching their 16 feature films and attempting to jot down observations on one per day, in order of their release. For a fuller explanation of what I’m doing and why, see my first entry, on Blood Simple. (Here, too, are my entries on Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, and Barton Fink.)

Notes on The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

• It’s an irony worthy of such master ironists as the Coens that their fifth film, The Hudsucker Proxy, was intended to be their most mainstream and commercial to date. They’d had a script in hand, co-written with their friend Sam Raimi, since the mid-1980s. (This is why there was a “Hudsucker Industries” reference way back in Raising Arizona, on the label of Hi’s work uniform.) But they knew the film would be expensive to make, so they kept it on the shelf. After their reputation flourished with Barton Fink’s success at Cannes, they teamed up with Joel Silver—yes, the Joel Silver who’d produced the Lethal Weapon, Predator, and Die Hard movies—who helped them raise the $25 million the film would cost. (Afterward, Silver gave the Coens free rein, and declined even a producer credit.) The movie, of course, went on to be the largest flop of the Coens’ career, failing to clear even $3 million in domestic box office.

• The reason for this, in a nutshell, is that The Hudsucker Proxy is not a good movie. I know that it has its defenders. And honestly, having not seen it in many years, I expected it to be, upon re-viewing, a modestly pleasant surprise relative to its poor reputation. It wasn’t. Like all Coens’ films (well, perhaps all but one) it has notable strengths, most of them technical. But on a fundamental level, the homage/satire of 1930s-era screwball comedies simply doesn’t work. It’s too arch, too hyper-stylized, too one-note, and, as a ’30s-era movie set in the late ’50s, too contextually schizophrenic. It manages the improbable feat of being simultaneously ironic and ingenuous, an accomplishment that makes the film almost impossible to engage with on any level other than the theoretical. Barton Fink may be (as in my case) an acquired taste; The Hudsucker Proxy is a flat-out misfire.

• Inspired by the works of Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, and (again) Preston Sturges, the movie tells the story of Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), a hick who arrives in 1958 New York City on the bus, climbs precipitously from the mailroom of Hudsucker Industries to the presidency of the company, and then falls more precipitously still. Jennifer Jason Leigh costars as Amy Archer, a no-nonsense reporter closely (and at times excruciatingly) modeled on Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday and Katharine Hepburn in pretty much every film she ever made. And Paul Newman is gruffly conniving as the boardroom Machiavelli, Sidney Musburger. (The Coens reportedly wanted Clint Eastwood, but he was unavailable.) Also appearing are Coen collaborators past (John Mahoney, Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi, and John Goodman as an unseen newsreel announcer) and future (Charles Durning). Co-writer Raimi has a cameo, too, and frequent Coens bit player Harry Bugin, who played Pete the elevator operator in Barton Fink, reappears in a more villainous role—first seen, if I’m not mistaken, as other characters emerge from an elevator. (My favorite role in the film, however, is a brief cameo by Peter Gallagher as a Dean-Martin-style crooner singing “Memories Are Made of This.” Show me the movie about that guy.)

• The one manner in which the film genuinely succeeds, unsurprisingly, is visually. It toys elegantly with circles (the tower clock, the Hula Hoop that’s at the center of the movie’s most delightful scene by far) and vertical lines (the quickest ways up to, and down from, the 45th floor.) Dennis Gassner, who did the production design on Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink, takes the office spaces of the former and extends them beyond caricature: Leo O’Bannon’s lengthy oaken abode was a space in which to enjoy a whiskey (or, depending on the company, a soda pop); Musburger’s airless, basketball-court-sized mausoleum is a space in which to enjoy fascism. (The corner of the clockface that opens onto the office, second hand ticking by, is a particularly nice touch.) More remarkable still is the huge, 1/24 scale set of a fantasy Manhattan-scape that was built for the picture, one large enough for the Coens to walk through. Though a few shots in the film required computer enhancement, most were accomplished the old-fashioned way, and the result is at times thrilling, especially in this age of ubiquitous CGI.

• Viewers so inclined can also have fun spotting the countless references to classic film sprinkled throughout, including Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, Metropolis, Meet John Doe, Christmas in July, The Third Man, and countless others. The Coens also don’t hesitate to quote from their own oeuvre, repeating lines from Raising Arizona (“If a frog had wings it wouldn’t bump its ass a-hopping”) and Barton Fink (“phony as a three-dollar bill”) within minutes of one another. But arguably the most cunning reference of all is right there in the title, which conjures J.J. Hunsecker, the newspaper columnist played by Burt Lancaster in The Sweet Smell of Success—a film co-written by none other than Clifford Odets, whose fictional doppleganger the Coens tormented with such glee in Barton Fink.

• Remarkably, one of the goofiest elements of the plot—Norville following up his invention of the Hula Hoop with the creation of the Frisbee—is in fact accurate, at least roughly speaking. Richard Knerr, co-founder of Wham-O, was the marketer responsible for both, in 1957.

• This was the first Coens film large enough to require a second-unit director, a role that Raimi filled for them. Indeed, it was Raimi who directed two of the best scenes in the entire film: the aforementioned Hula Hoop scene, and one, near the beginning, in which Charles Durning launches himself out a window.

• Nonetheless, perhaps the lesson to be taken from The Hudsucker Proxy is that however great the respective talents of the Coens and Sam Raimi, they are better when kept separate. (The Evil Dead, on which Joel Coen worked as an assistant editor, is the exception.) Coens completists may notice that after Blood Simple, I skipped over what some cite as their second film, the 1986 noir/horror/comedy Crimewave, co-written by the Coens and Raimi and directed by the latter. I did this principally for two reasons: 1) If the Coens didn’t direct it, it’s not a Coens picture; and 2) 16 features seemed like plenty. But the decision was made easier by the fact that the film is an absolute mess. Ripped out of Raimi’s hands by the studio, it was recut and re-scored, and the results left everyone unhappy. As Raimi regular Bruce Campbell, who starred in the movie—and also has a small role in Hudsucker—described it: “Crimewave was a lesson about abject failure—no matter how you slice it, the film was a dog.” Finally, anyone who read my earlier notes on Miller’s Crossing knows how I felt about Raimi’s cameo in that movie. So by all means root for further informal collaborations (the Coens reportedly offered advice on the Raimi films Darkman and A Simple Plan); but otherwise, let Coens be Coens and Raimi be Raimi.

• I hate to conclude the first week of Coens revisitation on a relative down note. The good news is that the brothers would immediately rebound from this misstep to make one of their very best films—establishing a pattern that would repeat itself later on.

Et Cetera:

Where I rank The Hudsucker Proxy among Coens films: #15 (out of 16)

Best line: “Finally there would be a thingamajig that would bring everyone together, even if it kept them apart spatially.”

Best visual: A boy and his Hula Hoop

Best sound: The sand in said hoop

Notable locale: A fantasy Manhattan

Notable influences: Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, Howard Hawks

Drinking-game-suitable catchphrase: “You know, for kids.”

Things that roll: The Hula Hoop, Charles Durning (nearly)

Dream sequence(s): Yes

Important scene(s) set in a bathroom: Amazingly, no

Uniformed elevator operator: Yes

Number of characters who vomit: One (Norville)

Next up: Fargo