|Hudsucker Proxy, The|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 18 May 1999|
Those who best know Coen brothers, producer Ethan and director Joel, who write as a team, from their work on ‘Fargo’ should be aware that they hadn’t quite hit their stride yet with this film, though it has flashes of brilliance. ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ is an idiosyncratic send-up that’s a little too on-target for its own good. The movie sends up the work of Frank Capra in particular and more generally, every ‘30s and ‘40s flick that centers around an average Joe with high ideals and/or a tough-talking dame who finally melts when she’s finally confronted with a truly decent fellow.
‘Hudsucker’ introduces us to Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) as he’s literally out on a ledge on New Year’s Eve, contemplating a suicidal leap as 1958 is about to become 1959. Norville, as we learn from flashbacks, started out as a fresh-faced kid from Muncie who has stumbled innocently into a complicated stock-options plot by the nefarious board of the Hudsucker Corporation. Ruthless Sidney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman) needs a patsy to run the company, and Norville seems the perfect dupe for the job. Then Norville comes up with a new kind of toy for children …
There is awesome attention to detail here, as well as a sense of design so keen (courtesy not only of the meticulous Coens but also cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dean Gassner) that, although ‘Hudsucker’ is in color, the enduring impression is of footage shot in vintage, gleaming black-and-white. The sound mix is also as keen as a paper’s edge -- in Chapter 3, there’s a spectacular blend of two different ticking clocks, footsteps, solemn music and an expanding scream that all mingle to darkly comic effect. Additionally, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance as Norville’s secretary/nemesis/love interest is a dead-on tribute to the archetypes set down by Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck. Robbins as Norville treads the line between wide-eyed naivete and blithe fatuousness with an acrobat’s dexterity, while Paul Newman plays his evil corporate chieftain with suitable snarliness.
However, the ultimate feeling is one of stasis. With this type of painstaking period recreation, the usual cinematic routes are either modern expansion on the themes or no-holds-barred parody. ‘Hudsucker’ abstains from both paths. The filmmakers clearly do not believe the tale they tell, but they don’t run away with exaggeration, either. This leaves ‘Hudsucker’ stranded in a peculiar middle ground, not attempting to draw us in nor letting loose with satiric fire. The Coens are under no obligation to play it safe -- indeed, it’s always a relief to find filmmakers with a unique vision who aren’t functioning simply as cultural xeroxes. Still, beyond feeling respect for the skill and technique involved, it’s hard to actually enjoy ‘Hudsucker’ on its own terms.