It had to happen. After an impressive run of critically acclaimed independent films, culminating with Barton Fink (1991), which won the top three awards at the Cannes Film Festival, the Coen brothers – Joel and Ethan – made their first Hollywood studio film, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), with none other than uber producer Joel Silver. Most film critics were unimpressed with the final result and if hitching their wagon to Silver was the Coens’ attempt at appealing to a broader audience that too failed as the film flopped at the box office. So, what the hell happened? It certainly wasn’t from a lack of trying as The Hudsucker Proxy starred a trifecta of stellar acting talent with Tim Robbins, Paul Newman and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Hell, the Coens even enlisted their long-time friend and fellow filmmaker Sam Raimi to co-write the screenplay.
As if eerily foreshadowing the film’s fate, the opening voiceover narration observes the protagonist’s destiny: “How’d he get so high and why’s he feeling so low?” I’ve always felt that The Hudsucker Proxy is the Coen brothers’ most (unfairly) maligned film, which is a shame because it has a lot going for it, including witty dialogue, incredibly detailed production design, some jaw-dropping set pieces, and their usual rogue’s gallery of doofuses, blowhards and snappy wiseasses. This film should be seen as the Coens’ affectionate homage to the classic screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s.
The camera moves over a snowy New York City at night on New Year’s Eve, 1958. As we move past several buildings, we finally come upon the imposing Hudsucker Industries building with a massive clock adorning its façade along with their slogan, “The Future is Now,” thereby introducing the film’s prevailing theme: time. The opening voiceover narration is all about the passing of time as it talks about the beginning of a new year and how people at Times Square are waiting for it to arrive, “all trying to catch hold of one moment of time.” We are introduced to one of the film’s “lost souls” – Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) – as he climbs out of his office window, ready to commit suicide. The voiceover narration describes him as someone, “out of hope, out of rope, out of time.” The narrator ponders Norville’s fate and offers this sage observation: “Well, the future, that’s something you can never tell about. But the past, that’s another story.” As this last line is being spoken, the camera pans from Norville to the large clock on the building and we travel back in time, one month, to find out what brought him to this sorry state of affairs.
Recent Muncie School of Business Administration graduate Norville Barnes arrives in New York City to make it big. Through a rather Coens-esque twist of fate, he lands a mediocre job in the mailroom at Hudsucker Industries just as the company's founder and CEO Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning) takes a swan dive off the 44th floor to his death. The Coens continue their obsession with time by having Waring start his watch before he jumps out the window. As he runs across the large boardroom table, the ticking of his watch gets louder as his time is running out. Fearing that the leaderless company will have to go public and “any slob in a smelly t-shirt” will be able to buy stock, the board of directors, led by the ruthless Sidney J. Mussberger (Paul Newman), have one month and decide to find a proxy, a puppet, a pawn, “some jerk we can really push around,” as Sidney puts it, to fill the vacant position left by the recently departed Waring. This will drive the company into the ground so that they can buy back the stock at a cheaper rate. We first meet Sidney looking out the window that his boss just jumped out of with the massive building clock looming ominously overhead.
Norville’s brief stint in the Hudsucker mailroom is depicted as a hellish Orwellian nightmare right out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), complete with all kinds of office drones scurrying back and forth. A trip up the elevator offers glimpses of floors filled with seemingly endless aisles of desks like something out of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960). Norville becomes the patsy and is soon blundering his way to success thanks to a little invention called the hula-hoop. And with the catchy slogan, "You know, for kids," Norville's invention becomes all the rage but spells potential disaster for the Sidney and his cronies. As if Norville's problems aren't enough, Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a determined newspaper reporter for the Manhattan Argus is thrown into the mix as she tries to uncover the real story at Hudsucker Industries. Their meet-cute is inventively realized by the Coens as seen and told from the point-of-view of two taxi cab drivers which is a novel way of depicting one of the oldest clichés in the screwball comedy genre.
If The Hudsucker Proxy is remembered at all, it’s for the show-stopping sequence where the hula-hoop is created, marketed and brought out into the world where it eventually becomes a monster hit among kids all over the country. Directed by none other than Sam Raimi, with his usual stylistic virtuosity, this sequence is visual storytelling at its finest. Nice touches include three anonymous Hudsucker executives (seen only in silhouette) in the “Creative Bullpen” (one of whom is Raimi) thinking up names for the hula-hoop – “The Dancing Dingus! The Belly-go-Round,” while in the foreground a secretary reads War and Peace to cheekily convey the passage of time (in a subsequent shot, she’s apparently finished that book and working her way through Anna Karenina). There’s also the bit where a lone hula-hoop rolls down a street only to be discovered by a child and this kickstarts the whole craze. The energy conveyed in this sequence is electric and is a pure cinematic moment.
In The Hudsucker Proxy, Norville has the air of a holy goof about him. He’s a doofus who happens to luck his way into good fortune without being aware of how it happened. Tim Robbins uses his tall, lanky frame for maximum comedic effect as evident in the scene where he first meets Sidney and proceeds to start a fire, runs around with a water cooler jug trying to put it out and then gets his foot stuck in a now flaming wastepaper basket only to almost send the aging businessman out the window. Robbins often sports a goofy grin and instills Norville with unflappable optimism and enthusiasm, especially for his big idea – the hula-hoop.
Amy Archer is your typical career gal, a no-nonsense mash-up of Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn that never stops talking as Jennifer Jason Leigh brilliantly recreates the rat-a-tat-tat delivery of dialogue that was synonymous in films from the ‘30s and ‘40s. Amy, and her distinctive (grating for some) accent, was part of an informal trilogy of period dialogue accents that Leigh perfected in the 1990s along with Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) and Kansas City (1996). The only problem is that Amy eventually falling in love with Norville doesn’t seem believable. There’s no real chemistry between Leigh and Robbins. The Coens try to make it work but it is the glaring flaw in an otherwise excellent film.
Paul Newman fits seamlessly into the Coen brothers universe as the malevolent puppetmaster Sidney J. Mussberger, a name that evokes that of J.J. Hunsecker from the Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Like Burt Lancaster’s bullying columnist from that film, Newman’s businessman is out for himself and crushes anyone who gets in his way. Sidney is a master manipulator who thinks he has all the angles figured out. It looks like Newman is having a lot of fun with this role as he gets to ham it up a little as a tyrannical tycoon. Watching him spout the Coen brothers’ colorful dialogue is a delight.
The attention to period detail is impressive. It’s not just the cars and what people wear but how they speak that so vividly evokes the 1950s. Blink and you’ll miss a cameo by the late Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith as Norville’s fashionable girlfriend once the hula-hoop takes off and makes him a media sensation. Coens regular Steve Buscemi even shows up for an obligatory cameo as a beatnik bartender. Other Coens alumni, like John Mahoney, as her grumpy editor who always smokes a stogie and yells all the time, and Bruce Campbell, as one of her co-workers and foil, are along for the ride and contribute memorable moments as Amy’s co-workers at the Argus.
Barton Fink's rather impressive collection of awards and accolades drew the attention of big time Hollywood producer Joel Silver who had admired the Coens' films since Blood Simple (1984). He envisioned their next project as the big breakthrough into the mainstream. To aid in their endeavors he used his considerable clout to give the brothers two things that they never had before: a large budget of $30 million and big name stars like Tim Robbins and Paul Newman. As a result, the Coens decided to resurrect an old project that they had shelved years ago called The Hudsucker Proxy. Written in 1986 with Sam Raimi, the Coens had never considered filming Proxy because of the rather large scope that they had envisioned for the film. As Joel explained in an interview, "The reason why we didn't make it when we wrote it is we realized how expensive it was going to be; it had special effects and it was all done on stage sets." Silver's involvement provided them with the means to make the film a reality. And so, with Raimi along for the ride, the Coens set out to subvert the mainstream with their own unique vision.
The Coens were very conscious of The Hudsucker Proxy as a throwback to classic Hollywood cinema. Ethan said, "The script, which contains a lot of traditional genre elements, was marked by a kind of heartwarming fantasy element out of Frank Capra. It also had a lot of verbal comedy, the kind you see in films by Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks, with dialogue delivered in a rapid-fire, machine-gun style. But it was bigger and broader, with physical comedy sequences and a lot of oddball action." While trying to sell Blood Simple after making it, the Coens shared a house with Raimi and this was where The Hudsucker Proxy was written. It took them two to three months to write the script and as early as 1985, the Coens were quoted as saying that an upcoming project "takes place in the late Fifties in a skyscraper and is about big business. The characters talk fast and wear sharp clothes."
This first image that they conceived of was that of Norville about to jump from the window of a skyscraper and then they had to figure out how he got there and how to save him. They decided to incorporate the hula-hoop because, according to Joel, “we had to come up with something that this guy was going to invent that on the face of it was ridiculous. Something that would seem, by any sort of rational measure, to be doomed to failure, but something that on the other hand the audience already knew was going to be a phenomenal success." Ethan said, "The whole circle motif was built into the design of the movie, and that just made it seem more appropriate."
Art house darlings, the Coens wanted to make a film that would be seen by a lot of people and so they approached Silver. Despite his reputation, the producer was hands-off with the Coens and his only input was to convince the filmmakers not to shoot their film in black and white. Silver pitched the project to Warner Brothers by saying that they would get a film that the critics would like and that everybody would want to see. The studio agreed but only if the Coens cast movie stars in the main roles. To his credit, Silver promised to protect the Coens from the studio and convinced executives to give them final cut.
The Hudsucker Proxy would see the Coens utilizing their largest budget up to that point in their career. They needed it in order to build large sets and use elaborate special effects. They had screened Blade Runner (1982) before making The Hudsucker Proxy, which also used elaborate sets and a large, detailed cityscape. Twenty-seven craftsmen spent three months building a '50s New York skyline, constructing fourteen skyscrapers. The film's skyline was based on photographs from a book that art director Dennis Gassner found called, New York in the Forties and the scale after Citizen Kane (1941). Principal photography began on December 1993 on soundstages at Carolco Studios in Wilmington, North Carolina with a budget of $25 million, although, some trade papers reported that it increased to $40 million.
The first signs of trouble surfaced when it was reported that the studio held test screenings for The Hudsucker Proxy. Audience comments were varied and the studio suggested re-shoots. The Coens obliged because they were very nervous working with their biggest budget to date and were eager for mainstream success. They added some footage that had been cut, shot some additional footage and added to the ending. Variety magazine claimed that the re-shoots were done to try and save the film because it was going to be a flop. However, Joel addressed the issue: "First of all, they weren't reshoots. They were a little bit of additional footage. We wanted to shoot a fight scene at the end of the movie. It was the product of something we discovered editing the movie, not previewing it."
The Hudsucker Proxy received mostly mixed to negative reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and wrote, “And wasn't there something dead at the heart of all of this? A kind of chill in the air? A feeling that the movie was more thought than art, more calculated than inspired? Doesn't the viewer spend more time admiring the sights on the screen than caring about them? Isn't there something wrong when you walk out of a movie humming the sets?” The Washington Post’s Desson Howe felt that the film was, “pointlessly flashy and compulsively overloaded with references to films of the '30s.” The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum called the film, “a jeering, dreamlike comedy with little on its mind except how neat the Coens are and how stupid or contemptible everybody else is, including the audience.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “For all its technical bravado, The Hudsucker Proxy is an unsettling contradiction, a ''whimsical'' fable made by acerbic control freaks. It's a balloon that won't fly.” Time magazine’s Richard Schickel wrote, “Try as they will to create a vision of corporate (and urban) hellishness through sheer stylishness, theirs is a truly abstract expressionism, at once heavy, lifeless and dry.”
However, in her review for The New York Times, Caryn James wrote, “Carter Burwell's music is excessive in just the right way, echoing the overwrought, clue-giving scores of 50 years ago. And Dennis Gassner's design is a flawless addition to the film's muted, fairy-tale mood.” Empire magazine’s Kim Newman wrote, “While the story and the characters are perfect pastiche, making them hard to be involved with, human warmth is imported by the sheer joy of the directorial flourishes.”
The Hudsucker Proxy is about the passing of time and even stages the climactic set piece on the cusp of the New Year as two omniscient figures fight within the cogs and gears of the Hudsucker clock while Norville’s fate hangs literally in the balance. The Coens craftily suspend time for a few moments as they seem to be saying that an individual doesn’t have to be defined by their past and that the future always brings the promise of something new, a chance to redefine oneself. The future is now indeed.
The Hudsucker Proxy contained all of the Coens’ trademarks, however, something seemed to be missing from the mix. Perhaps it was the fact that Proxy was the Coens' second homage to the screwball comedy (the first being Raising Arizona) and this time out their reach far exceeded their grasp. As a critic in Sight and Sound observed, Norville Barnes is a Preston Sturges hero trapped in a Frank Capra story, existing in a world created by Fritz Lang. It is this rather odd mixture that may account for Proxy's demise. Or it may simply be that the Coen brothers do not make mainstream films. They have always had a detached view towards their characters – we never fully identify with them or get to know what makes them tick. As a result, there is no meeting the Coens half way. You either like their films or you don't. It didn't hurt that despite the media blitz for the film, it was virtually absent from most movie theaters outside of large, metropolitan cities. That being said, there is a lot going on and a lot to admire in The Hudsucker Proxy. The film has aged surprisingly well over the years and deserves a long overdue re-appraisal.