Movie Of The Week: The Hudsucker Proxy (1993)

The Coen Brothers direct Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Paul Newman in this period pastiche comedy where a schmoo from Muncie finds himself the CEO of a major corporation in New York when the board of directors want to devalue the stock.

“Pants!” Suddenly, Sidney J. Mussburger remembers. A mailroom idiot has all but destroyed his top floor skyscraper office, smashing a hole in a window that sucks out a vital contract into the ether. The grizzled executive, the bastard behind the throne at Hudsucker Industries, chases the scattered document into the vortex. He loses his footing, finds himself head first dangling 45 floors (“Counting the mezzanine”) above the sidewalk in thin air. The only two things stopping him from plummeting to his doom are the moron underling who caused all the chaos in the matter of a minute, and his pants, which said doofus has a hold of him by. Tailored trousers. Good quality too. Mussberger can afford the finest things in life. But then he remembers an offhand conversation he had with his genial tailor, we flashback to it also. When gently upsold the standard double stitch, a glowering, overly wise Paul Newman (playing marvellously against type) shuts the man down. He sees it as a frivolous expense. Why would he need to pay extra for pants where the stitching will survive anything? The waistband begins to tear as the single stitching gives way to the forces of gravity…

Miller’s Crossing was the VHS that tipped me into being a Joel & Ethan fanboy. The Hudsucker Proxy was the movie that felt like their own secret personalised gift to me. Nobody else seemed to know or care about it in my teenage movie lover world. It flopped in America, their first big Joel Silver produced, major studio budgeted, complete creative control moment of coronation and it made bupkis. Took a whole extra year to find a release date in the U.K. I only knew it was coming due to a massive poster on Notting Hill Underground station platform. But once I watched it, I adored it. Every moment, every montage, every bravura shot, every technical piece of wizardry, ever zing of the rat-a-tat, 160 word a minute, dialogue. I would have had little to no idea who Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, Alexander Mackendrick, Damon Runyon or Preston Sturges were in 1994. Their influences seem clear as a bell now but then, I was wet all over. Yet it sang to me. This is a spectacular, flawless piece of cinematic mastery. Some say Blade Runner, others The Shining, but I know The Hudsucker Proxy is the diamond with all 4cs. It is possibly the only film in my personal Top 100 that inches forward with each revisit, rather than loses its shine ever so slightly to other favourites in the ranking on occasions.

“You know, for kids.” Tim Robbins’ Norville Barnes isn’t the sharpest tool in the woodshed. But he has a bright idea. A circle. Drawn on a tattily folded piece of paper. Everyone he shows it to inside the movie just thinks its the final condemnation that this dork is truly a braincell shy of a lobotomy. Turns out in this reality Norville has invented the Hula Hoop. We, everyone outside the movie, know it is going to hit big, reversing Hudsucker Industries faltering stock position and creating an era defining fad. As sure as gravity. As sure as time. We watch the production of the Hula Hoop as it passes through the floors and departments of the corporation; accounting, marketing, , testing, factory floor, goods out. Music accompanies this prolonged moment of creation. Carter Burwell’s orchestral homage to Adagio of Spartacus And Phrygia gives way to Dance of the Young Mountaineers and once the hoop…eventually… takes hold of the young minds of America the relentless pulse of The Sabre Dance kicks in. After an hour of near constant, verbose, relentlessly spiffy dialogue… music and image hack the talk. It is possibly the finest individual montage sequence ever committed to celluloid, a marriage of sound and movement that seduces the senses. The contenders for its crown could be any of the other half a dozen immaculate set pieces within. This is breathlessly tight storytelling from credits to close.

“Finally there would be a thingamajig that would bring everyone together, even if it kept them apart spatially.” Jennifer Jason Leigh is glorious and sexy as she crackles her way through the labyrinthine dialogue. Rosalind Russell, Kate Hepburn and Jean Arthur ain’t got nothing on the bark and the spiel and the pelt of this gal. After a series of dark, adult roles… trying to shed her teen movie cutie image… she landed a doozie here. I’m surprised she hasn’t worked with Coens again as she wallops their mannered loop-the-loop parlance in a way I’ve only ever seen John Goodman do as consistently. Strange that J+E have never recast any of these three leads? Regulars John Polito and Steve Buscemi have memorable cameos though.

Essentially The Hudsucker Proxy, for all it spotless calibration, iconic FX works and memorable cult quotes is a battle of ups and downs, good and evil. The Brothers favour doinks as their protagonists; HI McDunnough or The Dude. People who move with their heart rather than their heads, Jobs or George Baileys who are unknowingly tossed and turned by the slings and arrows of misfortune. Smarty pants like your Barton Finks, Tom Reagans and Llewyn Davis end up admonished at the the end of their trials and tribulations. It is only the pure hearted fool who comes out on top at the warm down of a Coens tale. God and the devil are always watching. The Hudsucker Proxy is the last Coen Brothers movie where this repeated format is explicit. You can tell precisely who the benevolent watcher and the ghastly reaper are here. Old Moses keeps the clock tower turning, knows all and is mandated to never intervene. The scraper of names from office doors is waiting to take all you’ve got… remove you from your penthouse perch. Why were the brother so hung up on biblical deities and devils in their early days? Maybe they knew exactly who their own representatives were in their stories… not the gormless hero, not the triple crossing plotter, not the shadowy dame but the gods with malicious control and minimal sincerity as to how all this smartness all crash lands in the final moments?


Perfect Double Bill: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here


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