You Know, for Kids!
It’s a bold move opening your screwball comedy with a suicide.
1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy was supposed to be a light change of pace, a breath of relief after the dour Miller’s Crossing and the relentlessly bleak Barton Fink, and yet within the first five minutes of the film, the character for which it’s named, Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), jumps from the top floor of his office building. “Jumps” isn’t even really the right term for it, throws himself might be more accurate, getting a running start down the top of a long table, while his executive board looks on in puzzlement. The camera tracks his 44-story fall all the way down, and there’s something alternately amusing and unsettling about how cheerful Hudsucker looks about the whole thing, even making a polite “move out of the way” gesture with his hands before landing with an audible splat.
Despite that rather dark beginning, The Hudsucker Proxy is a silly bit of fluff, held up largely by its dazzling 1940s-style art direction and Tim Robbins, at perhaps his most cuddliest. Among the Coen Brothers’ least loved (and least financially successful) films, it’s an affectionate (and exhaustively detailed) homage to the films of Preston Sturges and Frank Capra. Aggressively quirky, there’s not a whole lot going on behind it, which is puzzling considering that the Coens began writing it back in the 80s, whereas the dense, confounding Barton Fink was written in six weeks. I’m going to find as many excuses as I can during this project to mention that: Barton Fink was written in six weeks.
Anyway, despite its somewhat empty core, it’s certainly a likable film. At an hour and fifty minutes, it’s not a second longer than it needs to be, which is a rarity in film these days, now that editors and directors have decided that they’re being paid by each individual frame, rather than the finished product. America in its current state could probably do without any more stories about mediocre men failing upward, but The Hudsucker Proxy remains charming, likely because it exists in a world that’s absurd to the point of cartoonish, where a supporting character literally stops time in order to save the protagonist’s life.
Despite being well into his thirties at the time, Tim Robbins as protagonist Norville Barnes has all the gee-whiz optimism of someone half his age. The script can’t decide whether he’s dumb or merely naive, but, either way, even though he was voted “most likely to succeed” at his Illinois business college, he’s not cut out for life in the big city. His one day promotion from mail clerk to President of Hudsucker Industries is part of a complicated scheme by board member Sidney Mussburger (Paul Newman) to reduce stock prices and buy out the company’s controlling interest. Norville doesn’t have much interest in running a company, however. He’s an invention man, and pitches a product that will eventually turn out to be the hula hoop. With almost painfully touching earnestness, he shows Mussburger his life’s work and purpose, a crumpled piece of paper with a single circle drawn on it, a truly excellent sight gag regardless of what you might think of the movie overall.
The film follows all the expected beats: Norville is at first befuddled and intimidated by his abrupt ascent within company ranks, then he gets comfortable with it, then his ego gets out of control. Ace reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), suspicious of Norville’s success, goes undercover as his secretary to find out what’s going on behind it, but, after discovering that they share the same plucky Midwestern values, falls for him. Leigh doesn’t play characters so much as channel them, and here she’s channeling Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday and Katharine Hepburn in everything else.
It’s a highly mannered performance, and one of the most cited examples in negative reviews of the film’s “all flash, no substance” approach. Amy doesn’t come off as an actual character so much as a collection of “career gal” archetypes from other, older movies, which would be fine if the Coens had ever settled on whether they were trying to make an homage to or a parody of screwball comedies. Nevertheless, for whatever flaws Amy may have as a character, Leigh gives her usual 110% to the role, and it’s both surprising and disappointing that neither she or Robbins have worked with the Coens since.
What The Hudsucker Proxy does particularly well is depict the brain-numbing pedantry of corporate life. 9 to 5 and Office Space might be considered the platonic ideals of workplace comedies, but Hudsucker also manages to capture that special sort of tediousness, the kind you have to endure without complaint because what else are you going to do, quit? Jobs are scarce and you should be grateful for what you can get, buster. It’s never entirely clear what Hudsucker Industries does (other than “business”), but it has an extremely complex system for sorting mail, and it’s the kind of company that forces its employees to hold a moment of silence for the late Waring Hudsucker, and then docks them for the time spent on it. Revisiting it made me think back on an old job in which the CEO held monthly “booster meetings” in which he usually told amusing anecdotes about something that happened to him or his wife on vacation, somehow managing to tie it in to some arbitrary change in company policy. Attendance at these meetings was mandatory, and if you had work to do, too bad, you figured out a way to make up for the time lost.
As with virtually every corporate entity, real and imagined, at Hudsucker Industries the little people do all the work, while the executives (all old white men, of course) hold endless meetings to figure out how to make even more money than they already have. It only takes a short time before Norbert lets his unearned success go to his head, and he becomes insufferable. He humiliates and fires an employee for doing the same thing he did, having the audacity to step out of line and propose an idea to someone in a position of authority over him. Norbert must hit rock bottom (in this case almost literally) before realizing success isn’t worth losing one’s soul. The Coens aren’t treading any new ground here, either in themes or plot. Norbert is saved by a shameless deus ex machina, in this case the building clock keeper, Moses (Bill Cobbs), revealing a heretofore unmentioned ability to stop time. The Coens get away with it because of some droll self-awareness, when Moses, addressing the audience, says “I’m never supposed to do this. But you have any better ideas?”
I’m not going to try to sell you on the idea that The Hudsucker Proxy is a secret underappreciated gem, particularly when it’s sandwiched between Barton Fink and Fargo. It’s fine. It’s funny, and the ever-reliable Tim Robbins and Jennifer Jason Leigh do solid work. It doesn’t hold up when scrutinized for deeper meanings, but I don’t think the Coens meant it to be. They simply loved feather-light comedies of the 40s and 50s, and wanted to make one of their own. But man, it can’t be stated enough that it looks great. You just want to live inside certain scenes, like the party where Norbert and Amy share their first kiss, or the beatnik bar where Steve Buscemi is the bartender. Even 25 years later, it’s a beautiful shiny penny of practical effects, with miniature Art Deco buildings that were so well crafted that they were recycled for Batman Forever, The Shadow, and Godzilla.
The highlight of the film is when Norbert’s invention, initially a flop, is discovered by a little boy. A hula hoop simply rolls up to him out of nowhere, and he immediately knows how to use it, astonishing his classmates and sending them screaming to the nearest toy store, where the shop owner raises the price from free to $3.99. It’s a wonderfully silly moment in a film that is likely overlooked because fans and critics are comparing it to what came immediately before and after it. It’s a little bit like eating Pizza Hut after you’ve had Grimaldi’s and before you’ve had Di Fara’s. It ain’t great. But it ain’t bad either.