#51 - The Hudsucker Proxy (the Coen bros.)

“It's a pity to waste a whole Montecristo.”

With “The Hudsucker Proxy” the Coen brothers faced their first commercial flop, the critical reaction to the film was mixed and the audiences generally seemed to be very confused by it. And it is not too hard to guess why. The film is a schizophrenic assault on the senses, much more than the Coen’s other work, a farce of the highest order that has a really weird and unorthodox sense of humor. And the Coens where not the critical/audience darling then as they are now, so “The Hudsucker Proxy” was too much too soon it seems. 

It was also the Coen’s first big studio film, backed by Hollywood super-producer Joel Silver, famous for his big budget action movies (“Die Hard” and “The Matrix”) and it is worth noting that Joel Silver guaranteed the Coen’s final cut on their film, and even protected the film when the studio wanted to re-cut it after mixed test screenings. And with this the film stands today as one of the most unique films to come out of Hollywood in the 90’s. It is also a bit of a forgotten masterpiece.

“The Hudsucker Proxy” starts with the spectacular suicide of Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), the founder and president of the insanely successful Hudsucker Industries. But (literally) right after his death the board of directors, led by Sidney Mussburger (Paul Newman), devises a plan on how to get Waring’s stock in the company for cheap. They will hire a sap as the new president, which will plummet the stock and allow them to purchase it at a more desired price. And the sap that they decide to go with is the naïve and idealistic Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins). But they underestimate Norville, as he is an “idea man”.

The cast of “The Hudsucker Proxy” is obviously great. Paul Newman, who usually plays good guys, is amazing as the cigar chomping villain Mussburger and Tim Robbins is the heart of the picture and successfully manages to be both a bumbling idiot and a true Capra-esque straight man. Still the most pleasure for me came from watching Jennifer Jason Leigh as the nosy motor-mouth reporter Amy Archer, who was clearly based on Rosalynd Russell’s motor-mouthed reporter Hildy Johnson from the Howard Hawks classic “His Girl Friday”.

Actually many elements of “The Hudsucker Proxy” are graciously borrowed from golden era Hollywood comedy classics. For example Norville Barnes’ journey starts off very much like “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and its ending is unmistakably influenced by “It’s a Wonderful Life”. But visually the film is very much its own with a great use of miniatures, matte paintings and other visual effects. It has a very thick, almost gothic aesthetic that is touched up with art deco details.

But when the style of the film is concerned the closest relation from the Coen’s catalogue is probably “Raising Arizona” as both films exit in this over stylized, almost cartoon-like reality where even the laws of physics can be bent. This is strongly supported by the already mentioned whacky humor and the amazing editing which gives the film an unstoppable energetic drive that is more characteristic of Sam Raimi’s work (the film’s co-writer/second unit director) than the Coens themselves. I am not saying that this is his film, this is a Coen brothers film through and through, but Raimi’s influence is in the film’s DNA as well.

“The Hudsucker Proxy” is a wonderful film, genuinely funny and ridiculous, visually dazzling and very nostalgic for the films of old. It provides a great commentary on corporate America and how men with a vision are treated in this system; first looked at in confusion and questioned, then after success glorified and once their hour has passed torn down or corrupted. It is a vicious circle that many great people have gone through. But it is an idealistic film also, with its wholesome heart in the right place. Again, it is the Coen brothers' forgotten masterpiece.


Tim Robbins - Norville Barnes
Paul Newman - Sidney J. Mussburger
Jennifer Jason Leigh - Amy Archer
Bill Cobbs - Moses
John Mahoney - Chief

The Hudsucker Proxy on IMDb

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