Mess or Masterpiece?
The Hudsucker Proxy
Sample critical reaction: "Clever but cold, a heartless mechanical gizmo." --Joe Brown, The Washington Post
The reasons why I love what is perhaps Joel and Ethan Coen's least loved film, the 1994 box-office bomb The Hudsucker Proxy, boil down to one gag. In this homage to/parody of classic screwball comedy, evil industrialist Sidney J. Mussburger (played with cigar-chomping gusto by Paul Newman) nearly falls out a skyscraper window; his pant legs are grabbed by a helpful employee, Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), and Mussburger hangs head-first far above the pavement. As the seams in his waistband begin to rip, his thoughts wander back to his most recent visit to his tailor, Luigi. The sweet little old Italian (Ernest Sarracino) tries to persuade Mussberger to let him double-stitch his new suit. No, Mussburger growls, accusing Luigi of wasting his time and money. We flash back to the present, as Mussburger's seams continue to rip and doom seems nigh. But wait--suddenly, we flash back, to Luigi bent over his work. (It's no longer Mussburger's point of view, but dammit, now's not the time to split hairs!) "Mistah Muss-ti-burger, he so nice," the tailor muses in a hysterically broad Chico Marx lilt. "I give him double stitch anyways!" Flash forward--the seams hold!
Think about how that gag came about. The Coens wrote it (with collaborator Sam Raimi). They auditioned actors to play Luigi. They had sets dressed and lit, rolled cameras, paid union wages for all of this effort. They showed the scene to actual grownups who work for studios and banks, to test audiences full of people who have never heard of Chico Marx because he wasn't in Weekend at Bernie's. And somehow, this childishly goofy sequence made the final cut.
The rap against Hudsucker--about an average schmo (Robbins) who's put in charge of a major corporation in order to depress its stock price, then bumbles into a Great Idea (the Hula-Hoop)--is that it's too self-indulgent. Sure, it's beautiful to behold--an art deco wet dream, in fact--but it's really just 111 minutes of the Coens snickering into their fists, making stupid gags for the sake of making stupid gags, deconstructing Frank Capra clichés just because they can.
Well, yeah. It is self-indulgent. But maybe that's just another way of saying that it's the Coens' most personal film--and regardless, it's funny as hell. The Hudsucker Proxy is the Coens cracking each other up, egging their actors on with cries of "Make it bigger!" (a particularly reckless thing to do when one of the actors is Jennifer Jason Leigh), and spending a truckload of money doing it. (This film, their fifth, was produced by action kingpin Joel Silver, and reportedly cost a then-lavish-for-a-comedy $25 million.) You could argue that such a windfall would be better spent, oh, curing disease or feeding the hungry or teaching kids to read, and you'd be right. But filmmakers aren't in the business of curing disease or feeding the hungry. And reading isn't good for box office.