After a string of critical if not financial hits, the Coen Brothers had built up a solid reputation in the industry. Their success caught the attention of the successful action movie producer Joel Silver, whose credits included Predator, Lethal Weapon, and Die Hard. Given an opportunity by Silver to work with a significantly larger budget, Joel and Ethan sprung at the chance to produce an ambitious script that they had written in the early 80’s with their mentor Sam Raimi: The Hudsucker Proxy.
With 25 million dollars in hand, the brothers embarked on the production of what was to be their first truly commercial film, intended for a mainstream audience. What actually got made is a beautiful but confused genre mashup that failed miserably at the box office and is now considered a lesser entry in the Coen filmography. Since I first saw The Hudsucker Proxy with very little contextual information four or five years ago, I was eager to delve more precisely into what about this film works and what doesn’t.
When the vaguely industrial Hudsucker Industries loses its CEO to a top-floor suicide dive, chairman of the board of directors Sidney J. Mussberger (Paul Newman) sets out to bomb the company’s stock so that he can buy a controlling interest before the shares go public. To do this he needs to temporarily install a “proxy” as CEO, someone who will fail miserably at running the company. Enter Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), an eager young graduate of the Muncie College of Business Administration, who is plucked from the mailroom and launched into a new role as chief executive. The sudden chance in leadership piques the interest of fast-talking reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who decides to go undercover to get the scoop on the new corporate stooge. Meanwhile, Norville has some circle-shaped ideas of his own that threaten to throw a wrench into Mussberger’s plan.
If you think this sounds like Mr Deeds Goes to Town with some His Girl Friday thrown in, you’re not far off. The Hudsucker Proxy is an amalgamation of genre references, pulling from Frank Capra’s folksy urban fantasies, Preston Sturges’ screwball comedies, and Fritz-Lang inspired corporate dystopia (think Brazil).
I find it funny that the Coens believed this movie, among all their other movies, to be the most commercially viable. It’s hard to imagine that the general public in 1994 would be lining up to see a love letter to thirties and forties cinema set in the late fifties, no matter how much money got poured into it. If you were to show me this and Raising Arizona side by side and ask me which film was meant to appeal to a broader audience, I’d guess Raising Arizona, hands down.
Far from being a big-studio sell-out, The Hudsucker Proxy feels like the Coens at their most self-indulgently esoteric, trying to make the film their own cinematic heroes of the past would have made if they had access to modern resources and technology. For fans of those movies, it’s a wonderful homage to a bygone era of filmmaking, but not much else.
Still, all that money resulted in some beautiful visuals. The Coens and cinematographer Roger Deakens created a fantastical, dream-like version New York City, full of art-deco skyscrapers, rendered in shades of grey. Everything is a little bit larger and stranger than life. My favorite set piece is the mailroom: an endless, bustling perpetual motion machine, with cartoonish screaming managers (“THEY DOCK YA”) and letters and packages flying every which way.
- The motif of the circle is woven throughout the film (the hula hoop, the coffee stain around the job listing). Again, the symbols in the Coen’s films aren’t always worth analyzing, but I do like how this one ties the narrative together visually.
- On a related note, I’m pretty sure the only reason this movie was set in 1959 is that the year roughly coincides with the invention of the actual hula hoop.
- Apparently Joel and Ethan had to be talked out of making this film in black and white. Great commercial instincts, guys.
- Look at this image and tell me it doesn’t remind you of the last shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark: