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‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 25, 1994

If something brilliant is happening in "The Hudsucker Proxy" -- and you're meant to believe that it is -- it's apparent only to Ethan and Joel Coen. The brothers' fifth collaboration, a $40 million conundrum of a movie, is pointlessly flashy and compulsively overloaded with references to films of the '30s.

"Hudsucker," which stars Tim Robbins, Paul Newman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, is so full of busy, smart-aleck construction, producer Ethan Coen should have applied for a building permit. The Coens, who wrote the script with Sam ("Darkman") Raimi, are master architects. They can buttress any scene with attention-getting ironies, quippy retorts and exclamation- point camera angles.

But they wouldn't know the big picture if it crashed down from a museum wall. As with their Cannes winner "Barton Fink," "Hudsucker" bombards viewers with a plethora of beautiful images and distinctive moments. But nothing really emerges. Artistic residue, in this picture, is a big zero.

As the movie begins -- with a minute hand closing in on midnight, New Year's Eve 1959 -- an extremely distraught Norville Barnes (Robbins) is standing on the top ledge of the Hudsucker Industries building, about to jump into the void.

How Barnes got to this desperate point is the subject of the extended-flashback story. His predicament sets off a series of circular themes that include clock faces, karmic developments and two well-known recreational objects that are best left unidentified here.

We jump back to a year earlier as Barnes, a 1958 graduate of the Muncie College of Business Administration, joins the fascistic Hudsucker Industries as a mail room clerk. His entry marks the day that founder Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning) -- in full view of scheming lieutenant Sidney J. Mussburger (Newman) and the board -- takes a fatal jump through the boardroom window.

Unfortunately, the old man's will stipulates that his 87 percent share of the stock becomes public. So (in a scenario reminiscent of "The Producers") Mussburger and company decide to put a figurehead fool -- a proxy -- in charge to scare the stocks downward. When trading value has reached rock bottom, they'll ditch the schmo, snap up the cheap stock and laugh all the way to the bank.

Mussburger takes one look at Barnes and sees his man. Before you can say "Preston Sturges," Barnes is ensconced at the top, and the board is eager to manufacture his strange, circular inventions "for kids."

Into this cloak-and-dagger schema enters Amy Archer (Leigh), a hoity-toity reporter who poses as Barnes's secretary to scare up some tabloid dirt. But the more this self-impressed Pulitzer Prize winner exposes about Barnes, the more she likes him.

"Hudsucker" is more accessible than the Coens' recent work ("Barton Fink" and "Miller's Crossing"), no doubt influenced by populist Joel Silver, whose Silver Pictures helped considerably with that $40 million. Yet it still feels arcane and exclusive. Joel Coen's direction is brightly caricatured. He engenders a slick, snappy atmosphere, reprising the rapid-fire dialogue from such screwballers as "His Girl Friday."

With his production team (including cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner) in fine form, Coen will please cineastes: There's a "Citizen Kane"-like parody of the "March of Time" series, tremendous work with miniature sets, and there are unforgettable visuals, such as a shot of Newman in contemplative silhouette in the boardroom, skyscrapers in the window behind him and the enormous meeting table before him reflecting the orange glows of outside.

But Coen's just spinning Wunderkind wheels. Under his steerage, Robbins's overly naive country boy, Newman's Mussolini-style capitalist and Leigh's hyperactive journalist are just sophomorically re-engineered archetypes drawn from the mythic scriptbooks of Frank Capra, Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks. Missing in this film's performances is a sense of humanity -- the crucial ingredient in the movies "Hudsucker" is clearly trying to evoke. "Hudsucker" isn't the real thing at all. It's just a proxy.

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