The Hudsucker Proxy is very much a mixed bag of a film: an omni-shambolic collection of superb visuals and set design, with an often playful, dark tone, but that is sadly let down by its own script and an inability to control the aforementioned tone.
Arriving in New York City in 1958, Tim Robbins – with a baffled expression set upon his face throughout the film – is in desperate need of a job that requires no experience. As a result, he finds himself working long hours for low pay in the mailroom of Hudsucker Industries. If he had hung around a couple of years in New York, he could have formed a band with the similarly unemployed Llewyn Davis.
Fortunately/unfortunately for him, the President of Hudsucker has just killed himself, and due to the kind of corporate scam that only happens in movies, the board need to appoint an idiot to the presidency. After trying to prove his worth by pitching his big idea – a circle on a piece of paper that is, “you know, for kids” – the board realise that Tim Robbins is their man.
These opening twenty minutes are undoubtedly the strongest of the film. They have a playful feel – as opposed to an outright comedic one – the result of which is much fun, without the presence of any of the particularly annoying Coen-isms, too often found in their comedies. The score by Carter Burwell perfectly complements this fun, playful feel, without shifting into farce. There is also a darkness to the opening, and to many of the stronger parts of the film. Perhaps only ‘Harold And Maude’ (Hal Ashby, 1971) can rival The Hudsucker Proxy for having quite so many humorous scenes of attempted suicide.
Unfortunately however, the middle portion of the film badly loses its way, as those typical Coen Brothers comedy tropes begin to appear, notably in the preponderance of extravagant, exaggerated, extroverts, and morons. Jennifer Jason Leigh as journalist Amy Archer is a particularly bad example of former, doing a horribly grating impression of Katherine Hepburn, which is sadly neither funny nor entertaining.
In addition to the Hepburn-esque screwball dialogue, the film – as per usual for the Coens – is littered with other cinematic references. The plot is very similar to that of ‘Big’ (Penny Marshall, 1988): a childish man (or a child in a man’s body, in the case of Big) ends up well-above his station within a ruthless business environment, but manages to impress regardless, through his remarkable ideas for children’s toys.
The set design – by Dennis Gassner – is fantastic, and equally steeped in cinematic references. The factory-room floor arouses memories all the way back to Fritz Lang’s visionary ‘Metropolis’ (1927) with its giant machines dwarfing their human operators. Even the ticker tape machines are highly evocative of sprockets on celluloid running through a projector.
The look back to classic films continues in the cinematography by the incredible Roger Deakins. While the playful, yet cruel tone evokes Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ (1985), so does the scene where we see a seemingly-endless office of solitary desks with typewriters.
Except of course, in Brazil it was a reference to the Orson Welles film, ‘The Trial’ (1962).
And in turn, there was an identical shot in ‘The Apartment’ (Billy Wilder, 1960).
And when Billy Wilder filmed that scene, he was referring back to ‘The Crowd’ (King Vidor, 1928).
And now the Coen Brothers have decided to stick their own names onto this endless list of cinematic greats.
Circles recur throughout the film, notably in Tim Robbins’ various big ideas, but also in the giant clock face, in discussions of the circularity of Buddhism, and the way in which, at the end, the film loops back around to the beginning again. The circle represents free thinking, openness and ideas, and contrasts against the tall, rectangular skyscrapers, and long, rectangular boardroom tables, of a be-suited, corporate attitude. (This is probably bollocks, but it sounds good.)
However, the script – co-written by the Coens and Sam Raimi (of Evil Dead fame) – disappoints badly. The tone is meandering and inconsistent, and loses the dark, playfulness of its opening through much of the film. As an aside, the presence of Bill Cobbs as ‘Old Moses’, a token ‘magical negro’ and plot catalyst, is also a disappointing piece of writing, despite his great performance.
On these grounds, it could be said that The Hudsucker Proxy is a reasonably good film despite the Coen Brothers – their script is sadly disappointing. Instead the film ends up being saved by their excellent choice in regular contributors – Carter Burwell’s score, Roger Deakins’ cinematography, and Dennis Gassner’s set design.