Director Deep Dive: The Hudsucker Proxy

Director Deep Dive is a chronological look into a director’s filmography to see how they and their works grow and change.

Directing is a profession that requires constant collaboration, from the set design all the way to the editing booth and even beyond. Which is why it comes as no surprise that so many directors have a recurring crew for their films. Even in the early stage of their careers, the Coens compiled a collection of people that could take their style and help fully realize it on screen. This understanding that crafting your vision requires having reliable people around you can be traced all the way back to the brother’s first partner in crime: Sam Raimi.

Raimi’s relationship with the Coens started with his own directorial debut, The Evil Dead, where Joel served as an assistant editor. The trio hit it off and eventually rented a house together. They collaborated on Raimi’s sophomore effort, Crimewave, and wrote the script for another film that the brothers eventually deemed too expensive to produce as a first feature. After the critical praise for Barton Fink, the Coens were ready for mainstream success and brought back that old script along with Raimi.

The Hudsucker Proxy is another homage to the films the Coens watched growing up, namely the works of Preston Sturges and Frank Capra. Set in a New York City that feels even bigger than the real thing, the film follows noble dunce, Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins). Norville is a college graduate stuck working the mailroom at Hudsucker Industries. When the CEO jumps from a top-floor window, the rest of the board scheme to lower the stock price so they can buy controlling interest. Led by the conniving Sydney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman), the board installs Norville as CEO. This move draws the attention of Pulitzer-winning reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who gets a job as Norville’s secretary and slowly falls in love with him. A battle for the soul of this likeable doofus ensues.

Their second stab at a full-on comedy, Hudsucker finds the Coens blending in their signature dark humor with a style similar to screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s. Unlike their other films, this is a straight homage with little of the subversion and genre-bending we expect from this duo. There is greater emphasis on physical comedy and dialogue that feels at home in His Girl Friday. Even the upbeat ending feels more in line with the films that influenced them.

What makes The Hudsucker Proxy stand out is its marvelous production design. Led by Dennis Gassner, who also worked with the Coens on Barton Fink, the large and oppressive sets filled five sound stages. From the exterior shots of a fictional New York City to the boardroom with the impossibly long table, the world this film operates in is vast and cruel. Even the folks at the top can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the surrounding architecture.

Roger Deakins returns as cinematographer and creates some amazing shots from the massive sets. Namely, in the scene where Waring Hudsucker jumps through the boardroom window. Perfectly capturing the blend of exhilaration and horror one might experience in that situation. Mostly, Deakins keeps his focus on the character’s surroundings with several wide shots that draw attention to the scale of their environment. This helps place the viewer in the world along with the characters.

While Hudsucker feels different from the Coens’ usual directing style, the themes of the picture fall into some typical patterns. Norville is a clueless dope, like many of the duo’s characters, and finds himself up against a system trying its best to crush him. The brother’s also continue their love for visual motif. This time it is a simple circle, which Norville shows off as his grand invention idea with little explanation. That it ends up being the hula hoop is the film’s best gag. The circle extends to the set design too, particularly with the giant clock at the top of the Hudsucker building, which plays an important role in the film’s climax.

With their first attempt at a mainstream movie, the Coens went after bigger names for the lead roles. Robbins does great work as Norville, but the film belongs to Jennifer Jason Leigh and Paul Newman. Jason Leigh channels Rosalind Russell as fast-talking reporter Amy Archer. She nails this role so perfectly that it occasionally feels like she is the only person truly capturing the vibe this film is aiming for. To his credit, Newman meshes with the Coen’s dialogue from the very start. He brings out every layer of corporate maliciousness and casual cruelty that a villain like Mussburger requires.

With the leads filled up, the Coens use some of their regulars for fun minor roles. John Mahoney returns as Amy’s editor and clearly relishes getting to do some fast-talking. Jon Polito and Steve Buscemi appear in single scenes playing a disgruntled client and a Beatnik bartender, respectively. John Goodman announces over a newsreel scene and Raimi muse Bruce Campbell shows up as one of Amy’s fellow reporters. Even when working on their first big studio film, the brothers can’t help but add some of their favorite character actors.

Released in March 1994, The Hudsucker Proxy opened to mixed reviews and poor box office returns. From their start, the Coens were called out by some critics as “all style and no substance.” It is a criticism I would not apply to any of their previous work. With Hudsucker, the comment makes a bit more sense.

While the film has some fun characters and is reliably funny, there is little below the surface. It has all the zaniness of Raising Arizona but none of the heart. A film doesn’t need to “say something” to be good, but it should make you feel something. Hudsucker is also an undeniably weird movie, something that always remains true of the brother’s comedies. It is easy to see why this blend of black humor and screwball comedy might have turned off audiences.

Their first shot at mainstream success flopped, but it wouldn’t take long for the duo to bounce back. For all of Hudsucker’s faults, it showcased a directing team who were coming into their own. It was only a matter of time before their work broke through to the public. They just needed the right combination. That perfect blend of style, story and character, they found it with their next film.

Next Time: A comedic crime caper leads the Coens to success and introduces the world to “Minnesota nice” in Fargo.

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