×

The Hudsucker Proxy

"The Hudsucker Proxy" is no doubt one of the most inspired and technically stunning pastiches of old Hollywood pictures ever to come out of the New Hollywood. But a pastiche it remains, as nearly everything in the Coen brothers' latest and biggest film seems like a wizardly but artificial synthesis, leaving a hole in the middle where some emotion and humanity should be.

With:
Norville Barnes - Tim Robbins
Amy Archer - Jennifer Jason Leigh
Sidney J. Mussberger - Paul Newman
Waring Hudsucker - Charles Durning
Chief - John Mahoney
Buzz - Jim True
Moses - William Cobbs
Smitty - Bruce Campbell
Lou - Joe Grifasi
Benny - John Seitz
Beatnik Barman - Steve Buscemi
Vic Tenetta - Peter Gallagher

“The Hudsucker Proxy” is no doubt one of the most inspired and technically stunning pastiches of old Hollywood pictures ever to come out of the New Hollywood. But a pastiche it remains, as nearly everything in the Coen brothers’ latest and biggest film seems like a wizardly but artificial synthesis, leaving a hole in the middle where some emotion and humanity should be.

In an unlikely pairing of two of America’s most idiosyncratic artists with Joel Silver’s production company, and costing somewhere in the vicinity of $ 40 million, this reps by far the Coens’ biggest commercial roll of the dice. Some top reviews and strong support from Warner Bros. should lead to decent mid-level B.O. upon pic’s release March 11, but its pleasures are a tad esoteric for widespread mainstream acceptance.

The Coens’ one distinct commercial success, “Raising Arizona,” was their one film most recognizably set in a real world inhabited by working-class characters. The rest have taken place in relatively stylized and remote gangster milieu (“Blood Simple,””Miller’s Crossing”) or brilliantly designed capitals of industry (Hollywood in “Barton Fink,” New York here) in which little people are manipulated and buffeted about by the string pullers.

“Hudsucker” plays like a Frank Capra film with a Preston Sturges hero and dialogue direction by Howard Hawks. Startling opening sequence recalls “Meet John Doe” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as a desperate young man prepares to jump from a Manhattan skyscraper at midnight on a snowy New Year’s Eve, 1958-59.

Flash back a few months and the same young man, Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) , literally bright-eyed, bushy-haired and straight off the bus from Muncie, Ind. , is hitting the pavement looking for work. He lands a mailroom job at the enormous Hudsucker Industries just as the successful company’s founder (Charles Durning) less decorously hits the pavement after pirouetting out of the boardroom’s 44th-floor window.

In a pristine example of one of Sturges’ dufus heroes having “greatness thrust upon him,” Norville is installed as the firm’s president by the cigar-chomping Machiavellian executive Sidney J. Mussberger (Paul Newman), who intends to forestall a public takeover by lowering investor confidence, thereby driving down the price of shares and allowing the board to purchase a controlling interest.

Initially, this strategy works well, especially when hot-shot, tough-talking, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), after worming her way into Norville’s confidence and employ, exposes him in an article headlined, Imbecile Heads Hudsucker.

Twisting him around her little finger a hundred times, this dizzyingly clever impostor is Barbara Stanwyck’s “Lady Eve” to Norville’s Henry Fonda in Sturges’ romantic comedy classic, right down to the very verbal seduction. But Norville surprises one and all when, after having baffled everyone with the design of his brainstorm — a simple circle on a piece of paper — he pushes through on his invention “for kids,” the hula hoop.

The huge success of “the dingus” deals an unexpected setback to Mussberger’s scheme, but for him, “business is war,” and it isn’t long before he hatches another plot to bring Norville down for good.

Plotwise, it’s all been done before: The little man goes up against the evil titans of big business (or government) and gets ground up, only to prevail through his own native ingenuity and decency, and the hard-bitten career woman rediscovers her vulnerability through the love of a simple, good-hearted man. The Coens, and their co-screenwriter this time out, Sam Raimi, aren’t saying anything new here.

So it’s the way they say it that commands attention, and for connoisseurs of filmmaking style and technique, “Hudsucker” is a source of constant delight and occasional thrills. The Coens’ approach, in large measure, consists of the fabulous and ornate elaboration of small details and moments; they make entire jaw-dropping sequences out of incidents that other directors would slide right by.

Three such scenes are an outrageous memory flashback in which Mussberger, literally hanging by a thread over the street far below, becomes sure he won’t fall by recalling how his tailor double-stitched his pants; the movement of pneumatic mail capsules through tubes lacing Hudsucker h.q. and, best of all, an incredible episode detailing how the hula hoop became a national sensation.

Throughout, the rhythms of Thom Noble’s editing are extraordinary, the montage on a par with just about any classic examples. This, on top of the orchestration of the other superior elements — Dennis Gassner’s formidable architectural production design, Richard Hornung’s impeccable costume designs that draw upon diverse periods, Roger Deakins’ moody yet vivid cinematography and, perhaps best of all, Carter Burwell’s sumptuously supportive score — must certainly establish the Coens among the most imaginative and supple craftsmen of the cinema.

But rehashes of old movies, no matter how inspired, are almost by definition synthetic, and the fact is that nearly all the characters are constructs rather than human beings with whom the viewer can connect. With his gangly frame and appealing pie face, Robbins calls to mind Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart, but there’s no authentic sweetness or strength underneath all his doltishness to make him seem like a good guy the audience can get behind.

Partly for this reason, no rooting interest develops in the curious romance between Norville and Amy. Leigh skillfully plays the latter with a Katharine Hepburn accent, Rosalind Russell’s rat-a-tat-tat speed in “His Girl Friday” and Stanwyck attitude in a lot of things, but the character never seems quite right.

Beautifully decked out and speaking with a pronounced rasp in his voice, Newman is elegant and mean but never seems entirely, deeply evil in the old Edward Arnold fat-cat role.

William Cobbs has some wonderful moments as the man who runs Hudsucker’s giant clock and knows all, and Peter Gallagher, all too briefly, is uproarious as a Dean Martin-like singer.

Popular on Variety

The Hudsucker Proxy

Production: A Warner Bros. release presented in association with Polygram Filmed Entertainment of a Silver Pictures production in association with Working Title Films. (International distribution: Manifesto.) Produced by Ethan Coen. Executive producers, Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan. Co-producer, Graham Place. Directed by Joel Coen. Screenplay, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Sam Raimi.

Crew: Camera (color), Roger Deakins; editor, Thom Noble; music, Carter Burwell; production design, Dennis Gassner; art direction, Leslie McDonald; set design, Gina Cranham , Tony Fanning, Richard Yanez; set decoration, Nancy Haigh; costume design, Richard Hornung; sound (Dolby), Allan Byer; visual effects supervisor, Michael McAlister; assistant director, Victor Malone; second unit director, Raimi; casting, Donna Isaacson, John Lyons. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Jan. 27, 1994. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 111 min.

With: Norville Barnes - Tim Robbins
Amy Archer - Jennifer Jason Leigh
Sidney J. Mussberger - Paul Newman
Waring Hudsucker - Charles Durning
Chief - John Mahoney
Buzz - Jim True
Moses - William Cobbs
Smitty - Bruce Campbell
Lou - Joe Grifasi
Benny - John Seitz
Beatnik Barman - Steve Buscemi
Vic Tenetta - Peter Gallagher

More Film

  • Angelina Jolie is Maleficent in Disney’s

    Box Office: 'Maleficent: Mistress of Evil' Dominates With Soft $36 Million

    Five years after Angelina Jolie’s “Maleficent” cast a spell over the box office, the villainous enchantress has returned to the top of domestic charts. Disney’s “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil,” a sequel to 2014’s fantasy adventure based on the “Sleeping Beauty” sorceress, flew lower than the original and debuted to a disappointing $36 million from 2,790 [...]

  • MIA Wrap

    Rome MIA Market Wraps With Stronger U.S. Presence, Boosts Italy's Industry Standing

    Rome’s MIA market for TV series, feature films and documentaries wrapped positively Sunday with organizers boasting a bump in attendance just as some 2,500 executives departed in an upbeat mood after four days of dealmaking and presentations of mostly European fresh product, which elevated Italy’s global standing in the industry, especially within the TV sector. [...]

  • Film Republic Adds Further Sales for

    Film Republic Inks Further Deals for 'God of the Piano' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Sales agent Film Republic has closed further territory sales on “God of the Piano.” Film Movement previously picked up North American rights to the film, as reported exclusively by Variety. Mont Blanc Cinema has taken the rights for Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay. Limelight Distribution is looking after the Australian and New Zealand releases, Hualu [...]

  • ‘Bears Famous Invasion’s Lorenzo Mattotti Brings

    Lorenzo Mattotti on MIA Title ‘Bears Famous Invasion of Sicily’

    Illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti is no stranger to film festivals. The artist – a long-time New Yorker cover artist and onetime Lou Reed and Michelangelo Antonioni collaborator – has designed posters for past editions of Venice and Cannes, and has contributed to films that played in Toronto and Rome. This year, however, he experienced the festival [...]

  • Dreamworks Abominable

    'Abominable' Release in Malaysia Abandoned

    Plans to release the increasingly controversial Chinese-U.S. co-produced animation film “Abominable” in Malaysia have been dropped after the distributor said that it would not be cut to cater to political sensitivities. The film includes a scene which depicts a map showing the South China Sea and the so called “nine-dash line” that China uses to [...]

  • Hui He

    RAI Com Takes World Sales on Italy/China Doc About Star Soprano Hui He (EXCLUSIVE)

    Italy’s RAI Com has taken world sales on high-profile documentary “Hui He, the Soprano From the Silk Road,” which is about the personal and artistic journey of one of the world’s leading sopranos and also marks a milestone Italian-Chinese co-production. Hui He was born and trained as a singer in the Chinese city of Xi’an, [...]

  • Bruce Springsteen arrives for the New

    Bruce Springsteen Returns to NJ Hometown for Surprise 'Western Stars' Introduction

    Bruce Springsteen returned to his hometown of Freehold, New Jersey to offer a surprise introduction to the first public multiplex viewing of his concert/documentary film, “Western Stars.” Dressed simply in a brown jacket, Springsteen took a moment to say a few words at the AMC Freehold 14 movie theater on Saturday night. “We knew we [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content