The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) / Comedy-Fantasy

MPAA Rated: PG for language
Running time: 111 min.

Cast: Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Newman, Charles Durning, John Mahoney, Jim True-Frost, Bill Cobbs, Bruce Campbell
Cameo: Peter Gallagher, Anna Nicole Smith, Steve Buscemi, Sam Raimi, Jon Polito, John Goodman
Director: Joel Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Sam Raimi

Review published December 10, 2007

Though set in the late 1950s, this comic fantasy concoction by the Coen Brothers (Barton Fink, Blood Simple), as well as co-screenwriter Sam Raimi (Darkman, Spider-Man 3), owes much more to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s than it does to the era in which it's set.  From Preston Sturges to Howard Hawks (such as Leigh's riff on Rosalind Russell from His Girl Friday, with a healthy dash of Katherine Hepburn thrown in for good measure) to Frank Capra (especially Mr. Deeds Goes to Town), the Coens explore various styles of cinema to create a wholly unique blend of classic comedy motifs, done in the oddball yet fascinating way that only the creative duo can. 

Oddly, despite its immense pleasures for film buffs and Coen fanatics alike, the movie itself never quite took hold with the public, and is often forgotten when discussing the better works of the brothers.  Personally speaking, I think it's one of their finest films, with a breathtaking visual dimension they've rarely bested, while also dishing out a story that's funny, vibrant, and occasionally endearing. 

The Hudsucker Proxy stars Tim Robbins (Short Cuts, The Player) as Norville Barnes, a dull tool from Muncie transplanted to New York City without the experience or know-how to land a decent job in his industry.  His only option is to start on the ground floor, quite literally, by taking a mail room assistant job for mega-corporation, Hudsucker Industries.  It doesn't take long after he's hired than he is promoted, not just a step up, but right to the very top as president of the company.  How it happens is that the previous CEO, Waring Hudsucker (Durning, Stick), has killed himself, leaving the shares to go public, so to drive down interest in the company and get the shares for themselves, the Board of Directors put what they feel is a complete imbecile in charge in order to lose public faith and make blunder after blunder.  Little do they know that Norville has a big dream for a product for the kids that he thinks will be the greatest idea ever, and though it's completely crazy from the Board perspective, it's just crazy enough to work.

The Hudsucker Proxy stands as one of the most ambitious of the Coen Brothers projects, and if you're familiar with their work, you'll know that's saying something.  With a sizable budget with which to work with, they proceed to put together a quality cast and fantastic sets geared toward making the 1950s one that appears both retro and futuristic at the same time, not too far off from the sort of thing Terry Gilliam (Brazil) might construct.  At its heart, the story might be called an amalgam of style more so than something one could make a compelling tale out of, but the richness of the characterizations and environs bring the narrative to life, with a good sense of wit, romance, and satire. 

The acting is terrific across the board, with Robbins once again succeeding in playing a daft but entirely loveable simpleton.  As fine as Robbins is throughout, the work by Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hitcher, Fast Times at Ridgemont High), who nails that classic girl reporter on the beat vibe from the classic films of Hollywood's yesteryear, ranks among her finest performances.  Both characters are essentially caricatures, but yet the superb acting and the Coens' skill with creating mood allow the humanity of them to come out, enriching what might otherwise have been just a quaintly odd pastiche.  You have to admire the casting decision of anyone who'd give a part to "Hud" himself, Paul Newman (Slap Shot, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), as the head of "Hud" (as Hudsucker Industries is occasionally referred to).

I suspect that the bigger a lover of old Hollywood films you are, the more mileage you'll get out of this colorful homage by the Coens.  It definitely helps to know the acting styles and conventions of classic cinema to know why people act the way they do, say what they say, and live as they live, especially since many seem to be pulled in from different worlds altogether.  Though some critics have knocked the film for being too large to be personal, too lifeless to be engaging, I can't agree with this assessment. I find it an entertaining, fun, and spirited comedy worthy of repeated viewings.  With its PG rating, it's the most family-friendly of the Coen Brothers films, but it's definitely not just, you know, for the kids.

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo