They took him for a fall guy…but he threw them for a hoop.
You know, for kids!
That’s a refrain heard early and often in The Hudsucker Proxy. It’s most often heard when Tim Robbins flashes a piece of paper in someone’s face — a piece of paper with only a circle drawn on it. It makes no sense, but it’s funny, right? That’s an apt description for the entire movie: it makes no sense, but it sure is funny.
The latest trend in filmmaking seems to be brothers working together behind the camera. There’s Paul and Chris Weitz, who directed and produced (respectively) American Pie. Larry and Andy Wachowski co-wrote and co-directed both Bound and The Matrix. Peter and Bobby Farrelly have made several of the funniest comedies of the past decade, including Dumb And Dumber, Kingpin, and There’s Something About Mary. But long before any of those upstarts got their feet in the door, there were the brothers Coen, Joel and Ethan. Joel and Ethan Coen have made their way in Hollywood by playing by their own rules, making films where they retain complete control, and crafting their wares according to their own sensibilities. Their work has spanned many genres, from the neo-noir of Blood Simple, to the peculiar slapstick of Raising Arizona (their most commercially successful film), to Prohibition-era gangster film Miller’s Crossing, to my favorite target of a “Simpsons” joke, Barton Fink. Next followed the triumvirate of movies I will be reviewing this week: The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski.
The Hudsucker Proxy was the Coen Brothers attempt to recreate the zany antics of the screwball comedies of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. The promotional materials for the film name-dropped Frank Capra (It Happened One Night) and Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels), but it reminds me most of His Girl Friday, that great Howard Hawks-directed classic starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Madcap banter and witty repartee were the way everyone conversed. Oddball things that would never happen in the real world were standard fare. The Coens have the benefit of that rich cinematic history to draw upon, plus a hefty budget (the movie was backed by action film producer Joel Silver) to use for special effects.
You know, for kids!
The Hudsucker Proxy is the tale of Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), a shmuck from Muncie, Indiana. He takes a bus to New York City to find fame and fortune. He has a tough time finding a job, because he has no practical experience (doesn’t that sound familiar?). Fate guides him to Hudsucker Industries, where he lands a job in the mailroom.
Cut to a board meeting on the 44th floor. Everything is going peachy for Hudsucker Industries, but the founder, Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), is unhappy. Right in the middle of the meeting, he leaps out the window and plunges to his death. No more than a minute has gone by before weasely Chairman of the Board Sidney Mussburger (Paul Newman) is plotting a way for the board to take ownership of the corporation. The plan involves finding a sap to run the company so the stock price will plummet so they can buy it all up.
Enter dimwitted Norville Barnes. He creates such a mess of delivering an über-important “Blue Letter” to Mussburger that he is drafted to run the company. Things go exactly according to Mussburger’s plans. That is, until Barnes convinces enough people to look at his concept: a piece of paper with a circle on it that’s “you know, for kids!” His vision was the hula-hoop, that circular piece of plastic that was all the rage in the ’50s. It becomes a huge moneymaker for the company, which in turns drives the stock price up — exactly what the board of directors and Mussburger didn’t want.
Also involved is tough career-woman reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She infiltrates Hudsucker Industries to learn about the new president by taking advantage of Barnes’ duplicity. She claims that the purported “Idea Man” is really just a chump, but of course no one believes her, especially when his circle (you know, for kids) saves the company from the brink of ruin.
The circle is a symbol that is very important to the story. Normally, I’m not the sort of person who catches symbolic stuff in films, particularly on my first viewing. In The Hudsucker Proxy, the imagery is apparent. We see it in the coffee stain on a newspaper that leads Barnes to Hudsucker Industries, the circular clock that is a prominent feature on the front of their building, in the gears that drive the clock (seen in two key scenes), in an angel’s halo, and in the product idea that becomes Barnes’ downfall. It’s all over the place. The story is even circular, beginning at the end and looping around to tell the complete story. There’s even a dash of Christian symbolism thrown in toward the very end, during a fight that reveals a cross and two characters who represent God and Satan fighting over the outcome of Norville Barnes.
The Hudsucker Proxy is the funniest movie I have seen in quite some time. I laughed regularly and heartily. Many times, I would not be done laughing at one thing before something else presented an opportunity for a guffaw. Had I been drinking milk, which I was not, it would have been coming out of my nose, though I believe once I choked on my own saliva. Take that for what you will.
The actors of The Hudsucker Proxy are first-rate. Tim Robbins possesses his usually affable everyman charm as the intelligent (but not too bright) Norville. Jennifer Jason Leigh is a very talented actress, but it takes a very special role for me to care for her in a film. I loathed her performance in Georgia, nor did I care much for her over-the-top acting in Single White Female. However, she was excellent in eXistenZ, and she’s also great here. Her role isn’t particularly large — she doesn’t even appear until over a half-hour into the film — but she is the catalyst for much of the action in the second and third acts of the story. She seems to channel Rosalind Russell’s performance in His Girl Friday: both were reporters, both were as tough as nails on the outside to deal with their male colleagues but soft on the inside, both seemed to purr their dialogue while still delivering it at a rapid clip. She is the movie’s standout. Paul Newman plays against character as the cigar chomping, gruff, ruthless Mussburger. There’s no other way to describe him than as a total bastard. He is delightfully evil.
The supporting cast is no less excellent. Coen regulars Steve Buscemi and John Goodman both have small roles, as a beatnik bartender and a newsreel narrator respectively. Cult favorite Bruce Campbell (Army Of Darkness) has a small role as a reporter buddy of Amy Archer. Her boss is played by John Mahoney, best known for his role as the grumpy dad on “Frasier.” Bill Cobbs (Demolition Man) plays the enigmatic Moses, keeper of the Hudsucker clock. You may not recognize the name, but you’d probably recognize the voice or the face: Roy Brocksmith (Scrooged, Total Recall) plays one of the board members. In small cameos are Anna Nicole Smith (The Naked Gun 33 1/3) and Peter Gallagher (American Beauty).
Joel and Ethan Coen typically write their own screenplays, and The Hudsucker Proxy is no exception, except they also collaborated with their friend, Sam Raimi. One of Joel’s first screen credits is as assistant editor on Raimi’s independent horror classic, The Evil Dead. Raimi was between directing gigs at the time, with The Hudsucker Proxy‘s release nestled between his wrap-up to the Evil Dead series, Army Of Darkness, and one of his first attempts at mainstream filmmaking, The Quick And The Dead.
The Hudsucker Proxy was released on DVD early last year by Warner Brothers. While not as “bad” as some of their earliest releases, it still leaves much to be desired in the wake of their latest issuings. The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic and full-frame, on opposite sides of the disc. The anamorphic image overall is pleasant, but on a non-anamorphic monitor, it exhibits frequent moiré patterns caused by the finely detailed patterns present in almost every scene. Audio is presented in Dolby Surround. While a 5.1 mix would have been nice, the matrixed surround is entirely sufficient for this film. The rear channel is used frequently to add depth to scenes.
There are no extras. None whatsoever. No trailer, no cast biographies, nothing.
The Hudsucker Proxy is not one of the more widely known films of the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre; in fact, it was a big bomb at the box office. Don’t let that fool you, because it is easily one of the funniest movies you’ll ever see. At least give it a try as a rental, or let its low $19.98 price lure you into a sight-unseen purchase. You know, for the kids.