Slammed on release for being derivative and expensive, contemptuous and without substance, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) was the Coen Brothers’ first true critical failure. Though set in the late 1950s, Hudsucker Proxy is a pastiche of classic Hollywood directors from the 1930s and 1940s such as Frank Capra, Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges. The hero of our story, one Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), is, like a character in one of Sturges’ satires, a naïve graduate of a small Indiana business school who has greatness thrust upon him when Hudsucker Industries finds itself in need of a patsy to ruin the company’s reputation. It’s all part of a stock market scheme cooked up by the company’s new president and resident bad guy Sidney Mussburger (Paul Newman, in what was a comeback performance). Though Norville doesn’t realize what’s going on, fast-talking reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) does, and insinuates herself into the company to uncover the truth about the surprise appointment of a “grade-A ding dong” to the presidency; instead, she finds herself charmed by Norville’s innocence and honesty.
Hudsucker Proxy utilizes a mishmash of cinematic quotes from a wide variety of films and other sources. Critics and audiences at the time were not impressed with this style, considering such wholesale borrowing unoriginal. Had Hudsucker Proxy been released a few months later, after Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), perhaps its collage aesthetic would not have been so unkindly received. Yet this aesthetic unfortunately extends to Jason Leigh’s performance, and the harsh criticism she received was sadly deserved. She far too obviously jumps from imitations of Katherine Hepburn to Barbara Stanwyck to Rosalind Russell and more, changing impersonations with each line, proving that what might work for visuals or within a plot line does not work within a single actor’s performance.
That said, the borrowed styles, techniques and even plot points of Hudsucker Proxy are, at times, sublime. Take the early boardroom scenes, where the art deco lines and drab grays of the business suits immediately call to mind classic pre-Code films, both in the almost black and white tonal quality, but the conceit of having the residents of one large building represent the entirety of urban American society. At the same time, the gray tones are positively Hitchcockian, as is the gallows humor surrounding Waring Hudsucker’s gruesome demise, which imbues the scene with a moderate but palpable sense of dread.
The film’s cinematic collage created foundation of well-worn and easily recognizable tropes, as comfortable as a patchwork quilt, on which the filmmakers could hang their sharply honed and profitable cynicism on. In point of fact, as Amy Archer might say, the cynicism is the key to the film. Nobody in Hudsucker Proxy has an ethos worth a plug nickle, and their lives are worth even less. Without exception, they are all very silly people doing very silly work that, in the long run, benefits absolutely nobody. The sole exception to this uselessness is Norville Barnes’ invention of a circular sensation, the Hula Hoop, introduced at exactly one hour into the film to the second; for a movie so concerned with the concepts of time and fate, this is not coincidental. Also not coincidental are the candy-like bursts of color that the hoops bring to a film that otherwise prefers those subdued Hitchcockian grays.
But the Coens are not known for their heartwarming films, and the humor and good will of Hudsucker Proxy feels a little false, like someone sugar coating a pill even though they want the patient to taste every last bitter bit of it. The attempts at a relaxed, anything-goes sort of humor thus feel forced, most notably in the incongruous Monty Python quotes, including the appearance of a waitress who must be a refugee from the “Spam” sketch, followed by Norville Barnes looking as though he had just come from The Ministry of Silly Walks.
Despite these occasional missteps, however, Hudsucker Proxy is still the Coens’ kindest film. Though they have created an entire cast of useless people, the Coens truly love them, and it shows in how much these characters are given to overcome. Robbins’ performance of a desperate Norville at the finale is genuinely heart-wrenching; he is a man alone, frightened and defeated, ready to die. But that treatment is not an indicator that the Coens hate their characters, as is sometimes alleged, but that they love them and want them to survive, and understand that survival can only be achieved after remarkable struggle.
Of all the Coens’ films, The Hudsucker Proxy is arguably the most openly fascinated with the middlebrow stereotypes that populate their movies, and for the first and perhaps only time, the Coens allow themselves a little envy of that kind of life. They seem enchanted with the idea that people with bourgeoise aspirations can achieve success and happiness entirely within the terms of the very messed-up society they live in, never questioning anything except that which would threaten the Middle American lives they embrace. But most of all, it’s an aesthetically beautiful world, an art deco snow-globe where time and death are fluid, magical and impermanent. Justice is served, order can be maintained and contentment achieved. The happy ending, while in part a critique of the feel-good Hollywood corn of decades past, is still wistful and genuine, making The Hudsucker Proxy a complicated but wholly satisfying film.