THE HUDSUCKER PROXY isn’t the Coen Brothers worst movie; that would be The Ladykillers, but this 1994 style pastiche is by far their biggest loser. By the time advertising and marketing costs were added in, it was a $40,000,000 bet. One-hand-applause reviews didn’t help the muttered audience word-of-mouth and it hudsucked its way to a gross of a mirthless $2,800,000—a colossal misfire. This time the precociously talented duo not only rammed their unwashed hands in the cookie jar; they seemed to be smirking that they owned all the treats previously baked for them by others. It’s called Smug.
Set at the tail end of 1958, the 111 frantic minutes spin dizzily around ‘Norville Barnes’ (Tim Robbins), catapulted by fate from his mailroom minion slavery to become a ‘proxy’ fall guy for Hudsucker Industries scheme to depress stock so a takeover can occur, per the wishes of the ruthless ‘Sidney J. Mussburger’ (Paul Newman). Brassy dame reporter ‘Amy Archer’ (Jennifer Jason Leigh) smells a scoop. Someone needs to pull a Big O out of thin air.
Luxuriously inventive production design re-imagines the period and nonstop directorial razzle-dazzle runs camera (Roger Deakins), music (Carter Burwell) and cast in frenzied circles to such an extent that the showing off becomes an oxygen-depleting blur, with enough shouting for a World Cup riot. Their cleverness with dialogue self-sabotages as the uber-detailed late 50s mocking is intersticed with references to 1930s screwball comedies, 1940s film noir and post-1970s future-bleak ala Brazil (like once wasn’t enough). Not able to decide which facet of their theme to pillage best—What’s Wrong With Us (i.e. the rest of the clown-country outside of the insular Coen bubble)— they fracture their first mainstream movie into a schizoid circus, and revel in shoving excess (a parade of mostly unattractive people yelling at you) in your face. After ten minutes you get it, and have had it—but it doesn’t stop.
Robbins is a sharp choice for the dimwit hero, Newman an old pro as the crush’em executive, and Leigh bravely takes on the challenge of channeling both Katherine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell. They’re all fine, and the art direction (Frank Lloyd Wright meets Albert Speer via Gotham City) is splendid, but this sendup/homage/putdown/go-one-better of Hawks/Capra/McCarey/Sturges lacks the crucial element all those old guys saw fit to include: heart.
By far the highlight is a brilliantly edited sequence covering the explosion of the hula hoop craze—fast, funny and charming, it has the perfect blend of satire and warmth that the Coen’s deliver at their best—and it was directed by co-writer Sam Raimi. For the restless rest, the brothers scripted and shared direction between them ( Joel is credited, with Ethan taking producer status).
With Jim True-Frost (yelling), Bill Cobbs, John Mahoney (yelling), Charles Durning (plummeting), Anna Nicole Smith, Steve Buscemi, Peter Gallegher, Bruce Campbell, Joe Grifasi and Jon Polito (yelling).
The Coen’s redeemed themselves and the faith of their followers with a bim-bam-boom of Fargo, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?