More than anything, Joel and Ethan Coen fear being taken seriously. Barton Fink’s pompous playwright is superficially styled as a parody of Clifford Odets, but in retrospect—and particularly in light of the game-changing A Serious Man—Barton emerges as a kind of negative self-portrait, embodying the Coens’ morbid terror of their own pretensions. But I’m spouting off again.
The Hudsucker Proxy is one of the Coens’ most outwardly frivolous movies, part of a group of ill-received farces that includes Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers and Burn After Reading. But it’s often in their farces—where audiences least expect it and critics are most likely to overlook it—that the brothers grapple with some of their darkest themes. In Burn After Reading as in No Country for Old Men, innocent people are murdered without reason, but in Burn After Reading, the universe laughs.
Hudsucker isn’t shy about announcing its preoccupations. As the camera floats through a transparently erszatz cityscape, narrator Bill Cobbs, his voice a sly parody of Morgan Freeman’s folksy drawl, fixes the time at seconds before midnight on New Year’s Eve, with “ol’ daddy earth fixin’ to start one more trip ’round the sun.” We close in on the luminous orb of a massive clock face atop an art deco skyscraper, sandwiched between the stone-carved legend “Hudsucker Industries” and the neon-scripted motto below: “The Future Is Now.” As the calendar is poised to turn over and wipe the slate clean, the people below, Cobb says, are “trying to catch hold of one moment in time—to be able to say, ‘Right now, this is it. I got it.’ ’Course by then it’ll be passed.”
The Hudsucker Proxy is a screwball comedy about entropy, physical and, more crucially, moral. Tim Robbins’ Norville Barnes arrives in the big city as a fresh-faced rube, right off the bus from small-town U.S.A. Proudly clutching his diploma from the Muncie College of Business Administration (Go Eagles!), he’s come to claim his position in the rat race, but at every turn, the way is barred. Only when fate intervenes, as it frequently will, does he luck into a mailroom job in Hudsucker’s basement, slipping through the company’s revolving door just as the body of its soon-to-be-late founder, Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning) is plummeting from the 44th floor (not counting the mezzanine).
Hudsucker’s suicide leaves a void at the top, which scheming VP Sidney J. Mussburger (a gloriously gruff Paul Newman) conspires to fill with Robbins’ dewy sap, driving down the company’s stock price so the board—a long, gleaming conference-room table filled with elderly white men whose eyebrows stretch to the sky—can buy up Hudsucker’s shares on the cheap. But idiot that he is, Norville Barnes has one great idea, sketched on a yellowed piece of paper he keeps folder up in his shoe. Norville’s concept sketch is an unadorned circle, one of many populating Hudsucker’s symbolically overladen cosmos, but to him its ingenuity is self-evident. Once installed as a clueless patsy, he proudly whips it out to show to the board, his pitch consisting of a simple wide-eyed phrase: “You know, for kids!”
Norville’s circle turns out to be the hula hoop, whose transformation from company-sinking boondoggle to unstoppable fad is chronicled in a giddy, wordless sequence at Hudsucker’s center. Once again, fate takes a heavy hand. A frustrated storekeeper chucks an armful of unsold hoops out his front door; one separates itself from the pack and rolls several city blocks, finally coming to rest at the feet of an inquisitive boy. He picks it up, slips it experimentally around his hips, and starts it spinning. (That the hula hoop’s journey is accomplished without recourse to CGI increases the feeling of fortuitousness; you know the take used is one among dozens where the hero hoop spun out of frame or crashed ingloriously to earth.) A mob of schoolchildren running home after the last bell come upon the boy, and the hula hoop becomes an overnight sensation. Norville’s idiot has become a savant.
Norville’s fall is as meteoric as his rise—as Hudsucker’s circles imply, what goes around comes around. His corn-fed ingenuousness turns to arrogance, he’s schemed out of a job, and we find ourselves where we began, with Norville stepping out onto the ledge adjoining Hudsucker Industries’ looming clock. But the cycle is finally broken, if only by some serious bending of the rules, a happy ending that suggests such endings only happen in the movies. Optimism and pessimism walk hand in hand.
The Hudsucker Proxy is the last film of the Coen’s high symbolic period, capping a stylistic trilogy that includes Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink. The movie’s interest in the doomed repetition of history and the eternal dark side of human nature could hardly be more. Circles are everywhere: Hudsucker’s clock face, the coffee-mug ring that brings the company’s classified ad to Norville’s attention, the hula hoop and its descendants, the halo above Waring Hudsucker’s angelic head (“They’re all wearin’ ’em upstairs. It’s a fad.”) Joel Coen once said the brothers deliberately littered their films with untethered signifiers as a way of messing with critics, but here the recurring symbolism is like another layer of farce. It’s like the Coens are daring viewers to take their goofy screwball fable seriously, larding it with mythological and cinematic references like Jennifer Jason Leigh’s fast-talking reporter, a straightforward pastiche of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday.
There are parts of Hudsucker that don’t mesh. The lifeless expanse of Sidney Mussburger’s office is a trifle too melancholy, too cold; it feels like a shot meant for the Coens’ former cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld, rather than relatively new hire Roger Deakins. On its initial release, Hudsucker was touted as the Coens’ move up to large-scale filmmaking, teaming them with Lethal Weapon producer Joel Silver after their Cannes triple crown, and there are times when the movie doesn’t seem to fill the space allotted; its emphatic gestures echo like
Charles Foster Kane’s voice in an empty Xanadu. But that emptiness comes
to feel like part of the point, a solitary undertone that runs all the
way through. Hudsucker is warmer in every sense than Fargo,
the movie that followed it, but at heart they’re equally bleak about
people’s ability to do anything for a little bit of money.
Sam Adams writes for the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Time Out New York, the Onion A.V. Club, and the Philadelphia City Paper. Follow him on Twitter.