Hudsucker Proxy, The (1994): Joel and Ethan Coen’s Satire, Starring Paul Newman, Tim Robbins, and Jennifer Jason Leigh

Though inspired and influenced by many movies, Joel and Ethan Coen’s satire, The Hudsucker Proxy, is so shrewdly conceived and so brilliant technically that you have to applaud the siblings’ smarts and ingenuity.

Hudsucker Proxy was actually introduced at its world premiere at Sundance Film Fest by Joel Silver, the producer of big action pictures, who has been satirized and lampooned in several Hollywood movies, including the Coens’ own 1992 film, Barton Fink.  It is an unlikely collaboration that, among other things, enabled the Coens to work with their largest budget today.

Framed as a farcical, good-natured comedy about big business, Hudsucker Proxy immediately recalls Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe and Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero. It also borrows ideas and stylistic touches from Howard Hawks’ comedies, most notably His Girl Friday. As they have shown in each of their former pictures, the Coens are cinephiles of the first kind–their entire universe consist of old Hollywood imagery.

The Coens probably realized the limitations of their material, for they set their story in 1958; there is no way it could have been accepted as a contemporary tale. The new/old saga follows the career of Norville Barnes (played by Tim Robbins), a naive, good-natured young man from Muncie, Indiana, who comes to New York to pursue his luck and fortune. Indeed, within a matter of days, he finds himself at the top of the corporate ladder at the powerful Hudsucker industries. This amazing career move occurs, when the company’s founder, Waring Hudsucker (the great Charles Durning) suddenly commits suicide.

The scheme is orchestrated by Sidney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman), the chairman of the board, who wishes to drive stock prices down so that he can acquire control of the company. To execute his nefarious design, Mussburger plans to install an imbecile as president–and as soon as he meets Norville, his choice is made. Of course, the open-faced Norville only looks naive, but in actuality he comes up with some good ideas and the company surges ahead–to Mussburger’s dismay. He draws on a piece of paper a simple circle, which he modestly endorses as “just for kids.” Well, it turns out to be the hula-hoop.

Enter investigative reporter and Pulitzer-Prize winner Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is basically a modern version of Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe. At first, she exposes him in a story headlined “Imbecile Heads Hudsucker.” But, as could be predicted from their first encounter, she falls in love with him and thus allows the story to become a bit more complicated.

The chief problem with a pastiche like Hudsucker Proxy is not so much the overly familiar ideas or even mechanically constructed characters, but the acting. Regretfully, none of the actors possesses the charisma of the movie stars who had appeared in the originals.

Tim Robbins, who still has a baby-face, is more credible in the earlier than later scenes. But he’s too sophisticated an actor to be convincing as the small-town bumpkin–a role that both Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart played to perfection in Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Paul Newman acquits himself with an honorable performance in a role that used to be tailor-made to Edward Arnold in the Capra movies. Aging, though still handsome, Newman lacks the vicious meanness that came so naturally to Arnold.

The least convincing performer of the trio is Jennifer Jason Leigh, an otherwise great character actress. Leigh is no Rosalind Russell, or Katharine Hepburn, or Stanwyck: Lacking the appeal and appearance of a leading lady, she still acts as a supporting actress. Leigh’s imitation os Russell’s speedy dialogue in His Girl Friday is technically proficient, but there is not much chemistry between her and Robbins in their romantic scenes. There is really no trace of the allure or electricity of the seduction scenes that Stanwyck and Henry Fonda enacted so well in The Lady Eve, for example.

With the notable exception of Raising Arizona, which is the Coens’ only commercial success, each of the team’s films to date has paid homage to a classic cinematic genre with a knowing quality, born of many hours spent in movie houses. But don’t get me wrong: Each endeavor continues to reaffirm the Coens team as one of the most creative pairings in the American cinema today.

Joel and Ethan have co-written all their features, beginning with Blood Simple (1984), a masterful tribute to film noir. From the opening shot of a rain-spattered windshield through a tense and artfully composed finale, Blood Simple created an atmosphere of suspense and mutual suspicion to match any film of its kind. With Miller’s Crossing (1990), the Coens did for the gangster genre what they had succeeded in doing for film noir.

The distinctive characteristics of the Coens movies–flashy camera pyrotechnics, brilliantly conceived scenes–are very much in evidence in Hudsucker Proxy. Roger Deakins’ (who also shot Barton Fink) cinematography, Dennis Gassner’s production design, and Thom Noble’s editing are all first-rate and always a treat to the eyes. Yet, you crave for some humanity, some warmth, some reference to actual reality rather than to film history.

Commercially speaking, the ultimate test for a movie like Hudsucker Proxy is whether a younger generation of viewers, who are not necessarily familiar with the work of Capra, Sturges, and Hawks will still embrace the picture–and enjoy it.