In 1994, the Coen Brothers, along with co-writer Sam Raimi, created what is arguably their most underrated and forgotten masterpiece, The Hudsucker Proxy. The New Year’s Eve movie starred Tim Robbins as college graduate Norville Barnes, looking to kick-start his business career and settling for a job in the mailroom of Hudsucker Industries. When Mr. Hudsucker himself jumps forty-five floors to his death, the company (led by a cigar-munching Paul Newman) decides to hire a proxy in his place, so stock will go down and the board can reclaim the shares for cheap.
However much of a bumbling idiot Norville seems, he does have some genius ideas for the company up his sleeve (cue the fantastic catchphrase that later pays off in multiple hilarious ways, “you know… for kids!”). Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the “fast-talkin’ career gal” Amy Archer, hired as an undercover reporter to gage who Norville Barnes is as President of Hudsucker. Needless to say, his refreshing kindness and simplicity lead her to fall for him, and the romantic comedy subplot ensues. While time may have forgetten this classic comedy, New Year’s Eve is the perfect time to revisit it.
Just Because ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ Performed Poorly at the Box Office Doesn’t Mean We Should Count it Out
The Hudsucker Proxy suffered at the box office, making only 44% of its budget. This low performance was likely due at least in part to a clunky title and an off-beat direction that makes far more sense now, after the release of the Coen Brothers’ subsequent three films – Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? At the time, though, the Coen Brothers’ storytelling style understandably alienated some viewers who perhaps hadn’t familiarized themselves with the directors’ quirky and quippy sensibility by 1994. Set in 1958, in the build-up to New Year’s Eve, The Hudsucker Proxy is a mile-a-minute comedy reminiscent of the Billy Wilder comedies of the era. Think 1960’s rom-com The Apartment meets 1952’s Kirk Douglas noir Ace in the Hole.
The Coen Brothers, in collaboration with Sam Raimi, are clearly having fun with The Hudsucker Proxy, even if that came at the expense of box-office returns. The novelty of this period setting allows for several jokes relating specifically to inventions that took the world by storm, poking fun at those who doubted them when they were first pitched. Much like audiences’ reactions when this film, itself, was released! After 20 Coen Brothers movies, many of which – The Man Who Wasn’t There and Hail, Caesar! to name a few – have adopted this era and style, it’s the perfect time to rediscover and reevaluate their brilliantly clever New Year’s Eve romp.
‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ Is the New Year’s Equivalent to ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’
Frank Capra‘s 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life is often monikered as the greatest Christmas movie of all time. It embodies the holiday and all its highs and lows, and allows its characters and audiences alike to rediscover the true meaning of Christmas with every screening. It’s no surprise then that in creating their New Year’s Eve movie, the Coen Brothers devised a structure that paid homage to Capra’s post-war picture. Much like in It’s a Wonderful Life, the film opens with the all-seeing all-knowing voice of a higher power, telling us that our hero is at his lowest point, and is contemplating suicide. We cut back to the story’s opening where a young and excited George Bailey (James Stewart) or in the case of The Hudsucker Proxy, Norville Barnes, begin their respective stories.
Both movies are in essence the stories how the corruption of the corporate world and its responsibilities can turn a sweet man sour. When the hero is at the end of his rope, he jumps from a height only to be saved by an angel. In It’s a Wonderful Life, the angel Clarence (Henry Travers) sets the heart of the story in motion, taking George on A Christmas Carol journey of self-evaluation. However, The Hudsucker Proxy lovingly parodies this by giving us the ukulele-playing angel of Mr. Hudsucker, who killed himself the same way as Norville is currently attempting. This, paired with the addition of Moses (Bill Cobbs), makes for a double-whammy that keeps the Coens’ movie fresh and funny, never flying to close to the sun of imitation. Moses, the clock tower’s maintenance man, is revealed as the omniscient narrator, shoving his broom into the cogs, stopping both the clock and time itself. This allows Norville to stop falling and reconsider his decisions. Much like Capra’s classic, Hudsucker offers a unique brand of festive magic while keeping the story otherwise grounded in realism.
‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ Has an All-Star Cast
Another thing this movie has in common with the Christmas flick is its fantastic ensemble cast. Tim Robbins gives an exceptional performance in which he fully commits to spearheading the film’s wackiness. Norville Barnes is truly the comedic performance of a lifetime, and the fact that he achieved such a feat in the same year as The Shawshank Redemption is mesmerizing. Two years after her terrifying turn as Hedra in Single White Female, Jennifer Jason Leigh shines as the headstrong female investigative reporter forced to adopt an aggression in order to stay afloat in a cutthroat man’s world. Both leading performances are so independently sculpted and yet allow themselves to be softened, not undermined, by the additional tone their believable romance together. In short, they carry the movie and all its heightened mid-Atlantic style with ease, but the real MVPs of The Hudsucker Proxy (much like with most Coen Brothers outings) is the cavalcade of supporting characters.
Having previously mastered the Coens’ brand of 40s-50s jargon in 1991’s Barton Fink, Frasier star John Mahoney turns in a fantastic performance as Amy’s boss at the newspaper. The fast-talking “Chief” operates as a surrogate J. Jonah Jameson type, a character Sam Raimi would eventually get to direct when played by J.K. Simmons in his own Spider-Man movie series. A frequent Raimi collaborator also graces the newspaper office scenes, as Army of Darkness‘ Bruce Campbell plays Smitty. Despite Campbell’s knack for larger-than-life characters in Ash vs Evil Dead and Bubba Ho-Tep, here Campbell plays a quieter role, making for an effective balance.
Special praise should be given too to The Wire‘s Jim True-Frost, who plays the elevator operator “Buzz, I got the fuzz, I make the elevator do what she does!” Buzz’ uniform resembles that of Steve Buscemi‘s Chet in Barton Fink, who in this film appears briefly as a “Beatnik Barman”. This blink-and-you-miss-it cameo was nothing new for Buscemi in 1994, who despite having played a prominent role in Quentin Tarantino‘s Reservoir Dogs two years prior, appeared as the Buddy Holly-themed waiter in that year’s Pulp Fiction. Buscemi would go on to star in the Coen’s next two features in more prominent roles. In Fargo alongside Peter Stormare, and in The Big Lebowski with John Goodman. Goodman himself features in Hudsucker too, as the voice-over in a news special about Norville Barnes.
Of course, this movie’s cast cannot be praised without mentioning the iconic Paul Newman as Sidney J. Mussburger. Newman’s appearance in his period-appropriate three-piece suit harks back to his iconic role in The Sting. Here, though, he gets to really chew the scenery (and multiple cigars) in the moustache-twirling role of the villain. The joy is contagious as Newman seems to be having the time of his life.
‘Tis the Season for ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’!
‘Tis the season to come together with friends and family, and experience stories that remind us of the meaning of the holidays. But when Christmas day has come to an end, and people around the world find themselves with nothing to watch in the week that follows, there is a genre of which Hollywood has not yet fully taken advantage.
Although the New Year’s Eve movie is a phenomenon yet to be successfully capitalized upon, there is one movie that does everything one would expect from a festive film that takes place largely on December 31st. It’s the story of Norville Barnes, his rags-to-riches journey up the social ladder, his realization of the importance of love, and his decision to offer and receive “a second chance” – the true gift of New Year’s Eve celebrations. Master storytellers Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, and Sam Raimi team up with a stellar cast of familiar faces to deliver a truly underappreciated gem, and now is the time to rediscover it. With dramatic lows and hilarious highs, The Hudsucker Proxy is an impressive creation designed to entertain the whole family. “You know… for kids!”