I could tell you that The Hudsucker Proxy is a Capra-esque film "about" a little guy's skyrocket ride to the top of American industry, and that it pushes the Horatio Alger storyline as far as it will go. But because Joel and Ethan Coen are in charge, that would be irrelevant. Like every other Coen brothers film, The Hudsucker Proxy is really "about" other movies. Whole genres, in fact.
The Coens have previously done gangster movies, film noir, 1930s agitprop and road/biker movies. In their successful films -- which is all of them, except for the dreary Barton Fink -- the two have managed to invest their stories and characters with some free-standing interest. Gabriel Byrne's potentially overly familiar loner in Miller's Crossing comes off as mythic, rather than tired, and the poignancy of the Holly Hunter/Nicolas Cage search for love and parenthood in Raising Arizona is heightened, rather than deflated, by the film's set pieces and samplings from other movies. Barton Fink flops because it doesn't have story and character enough to keep up with the Coen technique. The Hudsucker Proxy is a step up from Barton Fink, even if it runs out of steam halfway through.
It announces its artifice in the opening shot, as Roger Deakins' camera drifts through that art deco New York that exists only in the movies, and only in precious few of them (this New York is most reminiscent of Batman's Gotham City). Outside the Hudsucker building, we find one Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) contemplating suicide out on a ledge. From this crisis point, we back up to Barnes' arrival in the big city, and what led him to contemplate destroying his goofy self.
He hits the city at just the right time. He studies help-wanted ads, but in vain: every job, from soda jerk to business executive, calls for previous experience, which leaves the young man out. His vapid look indicates that he has no experience -- life, business or otherwise -- on his resume. Instead he has a stroke of genius that he carries everywhere he goes: a circle drawn on a blank sheet of paper. When he gets the inevitable questioning look, he clarifies his inspiration by saying, "You know, for kids." The secret to his invention is in fact the film's most inspired idea, one that the critic's code prohibits me from revealing.
Barnes' impeccable timing has landed him a job in the Hudsucker building's mailroom just as company founder Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning) dies in a spectacular leap out the window of the executive boardroom. In typical Coen fashion, we get no explanation for his suicide. His company is more profitable than ever, and he actually looks pretty happy as he navigates his way down to the street.
For reasons too complicated to go into here, the Hudsucker board members, led by Sidney J. Mussburger (played by a growling and vigorous Paul Newman), agree they need a patsy to serve as company figurehead, and one look at the inept Barnes convinces Mussburger that he's their man. Meanwhile, in a daily newsroom, an editor decides he wants a story on Hudsucker's new "idea man," and he assigns ace reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to bring back his head, mounted on the front page.
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This she does. The headlines scream that the idea man is an imbecile. Later, of course, Barnes' invention proves everyone wrong.
There is plenty to like here. So few filmmakers take advantage of the medium's visual possibilities that it's a thrill to look at Dennis Gassner's design and follow Deakins' camera. Yes, you think of other movies. The inside of the Hudsucker building recalls the world of Brazil. And some of the performances are straight out of the movies: Leigh, in particular, has a ball playing a high-wire combination of Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn, while Robbins fleshes out his standard film naif in amusing fashion. In fact, the first half of the film offers one good gag after another, including a brilliant cameo by Peter Gallagher as a Sinatra-ish lounge singer.
But the Coens don't know what to do with their characters after the halfway point, when Barnes finds success. Now that Barnes is no longer the "imbecile" Amy Archer has described, Leigh's once-amusing character has nowhere to go. And Barnes' descent and resurrection feel like afterthoughts to his first-reel clowning. The Coens, boxed in by the thinness of these characters, can't even think of any interesting visual effects in the film's second half.
The Hudsucker Proxy is certainly worth a look, and it's an improvement over the sour Barton Fink. But it falls far short of the Coens' first three films. I hope they find their old formula, wherever they've misplaced it.