I used to idolise The Coen Brothers, and would be first in line when a new film of their’s opened, even if it meant travelling up to London and spending large sums of money just to see it. Unfortunately ever since The Man Who Wasn’t There my love affair has come to an end, they’re still capable of fascinating work but they’ve not made a film quite as perfect as their first six movies were, and these movies have never been quite as satisfying either, indeed a real problem seems to be that the endings have either felt underwhelming or gone on for a bit too long when the work should have been tighter.
But back in the nineties I couldn’t wait to see The Hudsucker Proxy. After revering Barton Fink (and seeing it three times at the cinema, which for a notorious cheapskate like myself was quite the event) two friends and I caught The Hudsucker Proxy at the Odeon Tottenham Court Road cinema at it’s first performance in the city, indeed photos exist of us standing next to the poster before and after the viewing, which I won’t post as I look like a right twat in them. I adored the film, even though one friend thought it was (in his words) “A bag of shite” and after buying it on video watched it many a time. The last occasion was over twenty years ago though, and given the issues I have with the duo these days I had no idea how I’d respond to The Hudsucker Proxy after so many years. But if anything I love it more than ever.
Some critics suggest it’s a flimsier affair than many of their movies and while it may not be as complicated or as bleak as their recent efforts I’d suggest that’s in no way to it’s detriment. It’s an innocent, sweet, warmhearted piece, beautifully shot and designed, with a soundtrack from Carter Burwell at his very best which enhances every scene it’s used in. The acting is astonishingly good as well, Tim Robbins has never been more goofy but also more insanely lovable, Paul Newman’s also amazing, normally so full of charm but here with the eyes of a killer shark he’s ruthlessly cruel, and Jennifer Jason Leigh is sublime as the fast talking journalist who feels like she’s just walked off the set of a fifties screwball comedy.
For those who haven’t seen it, the story begins with Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) standing on the ledge of a very tall building, looking like he may jump at any moment. Suicide’s a recurring theme at the beginning too as we skip back a month only to witness Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), the president of Hudsucker Industries, climbing on to a long table, running down it and launching through the window. Which is probably the bleakest start to a feel good comedy yet made, but the Coen’s light touch prevents it from feeling upsetting. Before we know it we cut to the adventures of Norville, who’s new to the city and desperate to get a job but can only find ones which require ridiculous amounts of experience, until an advert for Hudsucker Industries magically floats in to his view. He gets a job in the mail room which doesn’t look set to last when he’s asked to deliver a very important letter to the head of the board of directors, Paul Newman’s Sidney J. Mussburger, only to be hired as the new president. Obviously all is not as it seems though, as he’s a patsy, given the job because the board presume he’ll fail and stock prices will go so low they’ll be able to buy them all up and then start reinvigorating the company.
Of course their plan doesn’t work out when Norville is given the opportunity to take his brilliant idea to market – a hula hoop which is, you know, for kids. All the while Pulitzer prize winning journalist Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is undercover as his secretary, trying to work out how he got the job in the first place, but then out of the blue she finds herself accidentally falling in love with the man. Which suggests a happy ending for all, except fame and fortune go to Norville’s head and he starts acting like an egotistical twat, and Mussburger and the rest of the board are looking for a way to make him, and the company, fall apart. And just what is going on with Buzz, the overly chatty and slightly obnoxious lift attendant? And the wise old black guy who narrates the film and seems to know more than he’s letting on? And is Peter Gallagher’s pop singer intricate to the story? Actually, with that last one, no, I guess the Coen’s just thought it’d be fun to have him cameo in the role.
Normally I hate films which open with a teaser and then jump back in time but as it’s only a very brief scene which doesn’t really give much away it’s not a problem, when such a device is often used it’s a clip of the most exciting part of the movie but that’s definitely not the case here. Indeed they could have included the moment seconds later where he falls from the building and it looks like he’s about to make a bloody bony mess on the sidewalk just like the previous president did, but they hold back from doing so which makes that scene even more effective when it finally happens, as is the payoff as to how he gets out of it which is silly and ridiculous but also extremely funny and surprisingly upbeat.
It’s the Coens at their most playful, with a hint of magic realism in the way Robbins sees the newspaper advert and how the ending plays out, plus there’s some minor satire in the cold capitalistic ways of Hudsucker Industries (the driest of which is when a moment of silence for Waring Hudsucker is deducted from the employee’s pay), along with lots of playing around with screwball comedy tropes, fast talking witticisms and affectionate mockery of Norville’s love for the small town he came from, the absurdist school motto especially providing much mirth. Norville’s idea for the Hula Hoop leads to lots of laughs, the best of which sees him holding up a circle on a piece of paper and saying “I designed it myself”, and the dialogue in general sparkles so much it’s almost blinding. These are characters you’ll genuinely care for as well, and it’s painful to see Norville become, as Amy says, “Not such a swell guy” and a “Self important heel”.
Somewhat sadly I can’t imagine the Coens ever making something so delightful nowadays, something so pleasingly daft which is a giddy ride from start to finish. It’s the kind of film where all of the supporting characters are memorably quirky, even those who have only one line, and it’s impressively tight and efficient, there’s not a single scene which needs to be cut and it would be a lesser work if any were taken out. Plus it’s tremendously quotable, there are so many sharp and hilarious lines and exchanges, and I’m surprised it isn’t more of a cult favourite than it already is. To summarise then, it’s a film which is easily in my top ten comedies ever made, and a shockingly lovable piece of work which you’d be more foolish than Waring Hudsucker was if you choose to never watch it.