The Hudsucker Proxy Review


While The Hudsucker Proxy doesn’t quite reach the same level of insanity as the Coen Brothers’ earlier effort Raising Arizona, it certainly falls on the comedic side of their spectrum. What’s interesting about the film is that it’s relatively successful in two very different types of comedy—satire and screwball. The former is done brilliantly. The latter is merely good, but the film on the whole is light-hearted and entertaining enough to survive its weak stretches.

The film tells the cautionary tale of Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), a naïve young man from Muncie, Indiana, who comes to New York in the hopes of making it big. He gets a job in the mailroom at Hudsucker Industries. The company’s president—and namesake—has just committed suicide, however, and the board is facing a crisis: Hudsucker’s stock will go public at the end of the year. In order to protect their interests, one executive, Sidney Mussberger (Paul Newman) hatches a plan: Devalue the company enough so that the board can afford to purchase the stock itself. To achieve this goal, he needs to scare potential investors off, so he starts looking for a real imbecile to put in charge. And as soon as he lays eyes on Norville, he knows he has found his man.

This portion of the plot—which takes up the bulk of the first half of the film—is absolute genius. The dialogue crackles with wit and the send-up of all aspects of the corporate ladder is hilarious. Things become uneven, however, as the film goes on. The film transforms somewhat, focusing more on Norville’s leadership and his relationship with a feisty reporter, Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh). There’s no doubt that much of what’s here is funny (the extended sequence in which numerous employees discuss what Norville should name his big invention is brilliant), it’s just not quite on par with what precedes it, which makes The Hudsucker Proxy feel like a bit of a letdown.

Most of the acting is overshadowed by the plot and writing. That’s not to say the acting is bad, it’s just that these characters are larger than life, and none of the performances is quite good enough to stand above the character and the words he or she speaks. As Norville, Tim Robbins plays the meek everyman he’s since grown to master. Norville is a good anchor for a film like this—he almost feels normal at first, but the absurdity of the world he populates begins to overwhelm and change him. Jennifer Jason Leigh feels miscast as Amy. She delivers the lines like a champ, but she didn’t command my attention the way she needed to. Paul Newman simply does his best impersonation of pure evil.

Like the rest of the Coen Brothers’ efforts, this film is set in a very specific time and place, and the directors bring that place—post-WWII New York City—to life in spectacular fashion. The cinematography is amazing, as always (note the opening shot through the New York skyline). The costumes and set design are great. And some of the directorial flourishes help you feel like you’ve been transported—like the old-fashioned newsreel clips.

The Hudsucker Proxy is generally viewed as a lesser Coen Brothers’ effort, and I can understand why. It’s just not as assured and steady as some of their previous efforts, but it’s still a lot of fun. There’s nothing wrong with not taking yourself so seriously all the time, and that’s precisely what the directors do here. They’ve dispensed of the heavy Miller’s Crossing-esque stuff for just a brief while to bring you a picture that’s brimming with cheerfulness and generally good-natured humor. And while I’d agree it’s not their best film—that, I’ve said many times, is Fargo—it’s certainly a worthy entry in their film canon.

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