The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
The Hudsucker Proxy was possibly the last Coen Brothers movie that I had heard of. I still have not seen a few of their movies, but I had heard of all of them before this one. Sitting between two of my favorite Coen Brothers movies (Barton Fink and Fargo), I was excited to check out a film that included two of my favorite actors.
I found The Hudsucker Proxy very interesting. It’s clearly a Coen Brothers movie, but it seems so unpolished compared to most of their other work, especially their later entries. Tim Robbins plays a naive man named Norville who is promoted to President of Hudsucker Industries after the former President commits suicide, as a way for the board to deviously make money from their stock.
The movie takes place in the 1950s, and that’s definitely a plus. The period setting is skillfully evoked, just as 1940s Hollywood was in the previous Barton Fink. If you pay close attention, the beginning reveals that it’s actually a fictional New York City, with the buildings moved to exactly where the Coen Brothers want them. Leave it to them to decide that the real NYC wasn’t good enough, and that they wanted something better for them.
I’ll make one last comparison to other Coen Brothers fare before evaluating this movie on its own. The Hudsucker Proxy seemed to me like a combination of their very early Raising Arizona and their immediate precursor to this, Barton Fink. The film has really quirky and bizarre extra and secondary characters, like Fink did. It also depicts a seriously dark and dehumanizing workplace, like Fink did before it, only Proxy creates a mechanistic, dangerous setting in the mailroom, akin to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Yet the film is not nearly as dark as Fink, and plays out much more like the screwball comedy that was Raising Arizona. This synergy of styles results in a mostly enjoyable film that moves between satire and silliness in its attempts at humor.
The humor is definitely there; the film will certainly garner some laughs. One particularly interesting and funny scene comes from two extras (a mailman and a bus driver) narrating the actions of Tim Robbins and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Their heavy New York accents and privy knowledge of Leigh’s intentions make this scene stand out as one of Proxy’s most memorable and hilarious. Unfortunately, not all the humor is top-notch; as I said, the movie seems less refined, and the humor with it. A lot of the jokes in this movie seem subpar for the Coens, and are a bit more obvious and common than the humor in their other films. How many times will we see a bumbling character claim to know a foreign language only to say something offensive in it to someone important? It’s already been too many.
The cast is pretty solid. Paul Newman may be the best here, making the evil corporate Vice President of the company shine, cigar always in mouth and devious smile always on it. Newman’s eyes alone are enough to bring the right blend of comical corruption to his character. Tim Robbins is one of my favorite actors, so I was excited to see him in a leading role early on in his career. Maybe it was because I just watched it, but at times he seemed to be channeling Jack Nance’s performance in Eraserhead (at least before his hair is restyled). Still, Robbins sometimes made me feel as though he was being wasted. It may have been his character, the standard good-hearted ignorant buffoon, but I was expecting more. That may have just been my preconceptions butting in and ruining a fine enough performance, though.
Even amidst all the bizarre and wacky characters, Jennifer Jason Leigh seemed to be a bit over the top. Her Pulitzer-winning reporter character is done in the style of fast-talking actresses like Katherine Hepburn, but sometimes it seemed like she was trying too hard. To be honest, however, that style of acting has always been funny (funny weird, not funny comical) to me, as I wasn’t a huge fan of Cate Blanchett’s performance in The Aviator as well. Maybe I just need to see some old Hepburn films to truly appreciate the style.
Quintessential geriatric Patrick Cranshaw is used wonderfully as usual, and Jim True-Frost puts in a memorable performance as the elevator operator Buzz. You’ll also see good cameos from Steve Buscemi and Bruce Campbell, and if you look hard enough you might be able to catch Ian McKellen and Sam Raimi (listen hard enough and you can catch Coen Brothers regular John Goodman, as well).
As might be expected from a Coens movie, there are a lot of really great scenes. Wordless montages that perfectly convey meaning, such as Robbins’ initial attempt to get a job, or the creation of the Hula Hoop. The latter scene features an excellent little boy hula hooping, which brings plenty of laughs just in itself. There’s also a bunch of great tracking shots, whether it’s down a board meeting table or following someone running. And perhaps most memorable and tricky of all is a montage dominated by people laughing that transitions between its shots through newspaper clippings coming to life. There’s also plenty of symbolism throughout the film, most involving circles, that include the narrative style of starting with a flashback and looping back to end with the same scene. All in all, plenty of excellent filmmaking from the Coen Brothers.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t stand up to the rest of their canon. The aforementioned subpar humor detracts from it a bit, but the real killer of the movie is the ending. I was having a pretty good time before the clock mechanic was able to stop time, and had to battle a randomly evil old janitor to save Norville’s life. The whole thing was this movie getting too outlandish, and it would have been much better to have an ending that included more established elements from the film.
If you’re a Coen Brothers fan, The Hudsucker Proxy is worth seeing. It’s also a pretty good comedy for people who like styles a bit deviant from the mainstream. It’s not the best at anything it is, but it’s a decent enough entry to both screwball comedies and Coen Brothers fare. It’s almost like the last film in an era for the Coens. Their next, Fargo, would meet critical and commercial success and begin a new, much more mature, phase in their filmmaking.
Final rating: 7/10
–James A. Janisse
This entry was posted on January 20, 2010 by James A. Janisse. It was filed under 7 - 7.5, Comedy, Genre, Ratings and was tagged with bill cobbs, bruce campbell, coen brothers, jennifer jason leigh, jim true-frost, patrick crenshaw, paul newman, steve buscemi, tim robbins.