The Coen brothers teamed up with Sam Raimi and all-action producer Joel Silver to create a film billed as “A Comedy of Invention. They took him for a fall guy… but he threw them for a hoop. At Hudsucker Industries there’s a fast way to the top… and an even faster way down.”
The proxy of the film’s title is Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), a somewhat simple graduate of the Muncie Business School who has come to New York in 1958 to find a big business life in America’s sin city. Prior to his arrival, the owner of the fantastically successful Hudsucker Industries (Charles Durning) finally surprised his board of directors by announcing that on his death the company’s shares will be floated publicly on the stock exchange and then committing suicide by throwing himself to his death from the boardroom office.
When Robbins arrives in New York, a determined newspaper advertisement informs him of an opening in Hudsucker Industries’ mailroom. He applies for and gets the job, and on his first day comes into contact with the company’s chief executive Paul Newman. Sensing the essential simplicity of Robbins, Newman decides that he will make the perfect chairman of the board. Robbins believes that this is because he has been recognised as a business genius, but Newman believes that with Robbins at the helm, the share price will fall through the floor and the board of directors will be able to buy up all their stock options at the cheapest price imaginable, fire Robbins and then rebuild the company’s financial fortunes and cash in.
Into this scheme enters Jennifer Jason Leigh, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with a punchy attitude towards patronising men and a store of one-liners that could stop a male chauvinist rhinoceros in his tracks. Scenting a story behind Hudsucker’s appointment of this unknown wunderkind, she goes undercover to get a job as his secretary and find out the real story.
However, although Robbins is an idiot, he’s secretly an idiot savant. He has one great idea in his life – the hula hoop. The company’s research and development department, Sam Raimi and John Cameron, formulate the design for Robbins’ confused concept and turn it into a toy craze that eventually sweeps America. Although Hudsucker stock soars through the roof, the board of directors are immensely disapproving and determine to drive him into suicidal madness. Against this, Leigh begins to realize that she is falling in love with Robbins, despite understanding fully that he’s no great intellectual shakes and having published stories castigating him as a total fool.
Driven to the point of absolute despair, Robbins decides to kill himself – only to discover that the role of the Hudsucker proxy has a dimension of magical realism that he never suspected…
The film is a happy celebration of the American movies of the ’30s and ’40s in which a Preston Sturges hero – the little man – could be put in a position of power and still survive against greater powers, and Frank Capra could reinforce the joys of uncomplicated American values. Tim Robbins suggests the archetypal Capra heroes Gary Cooper and James Stewart, while Jennifer Jason Leigh – in a tour de force performance – manages to incorporate the raspy quality of Jean Arthur, the elocution of Katharine Hepburn, the feistiness of Rosalind Russell and indomitable spirit of Barbara Stanwyck into her role.
Collectors of movie trivia should note that John Goodman takes the role of Karl Mundt, a newsreel announcer – Karl Mundt also truns up in the other Coen Brothers film Barton Fink and in Raising Arizona factory workers are wearing uniforms with Hudsucker Industires on them.
Commenting on the meticulous attention to detail, Motion Picture Guide says: “It is, however an impressive technical achievement – the period New York sets are to die for – and its version of the invention of the hula-hoop is a comic highlight.”
Commenting on the role of Norvbille Barnes, Time says: “you can imagine either Jimmy Stewart or Eddie Bracken in the part, but Robbins has a tricky modernist charm all his own. And you can just as easily imagine Edward Arnold as the evil genius of the board of directors, Sidney J Mussburger, although Paul Newman brings spritely spite to the role.”
For the Chicago Sun Times: “This is the best-looking movie I’ve seen in years, a feast for the eyes and the imagination. The art direction and set design are breathtaking, recreating the world of the 1930s screwball comedy in which towering skyscrapers and vast boardrooms were the playing fields for the ambition of corrupt executives, ambitious kids, unsung geniuses, and lady newspaper reporters with nails as sharp as their wisecracks.”
For Variety: “The Hudsucker Proxy is no doubt one of the most inspired and technically stunning pastiches of old Hollywood pictures ever to come out of the New Hollywood.”
Cast: Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Newman, Charles Durning, John Mahoney, Jim True-Frost, Bill Cobbs, Bruce Campbell, Harry Bugin, Joe Grifasi, Steve Buscemi, Anna Nicole Smith, Joanne Pankow, Thom Noble, Stan Adams, John Seitz, Roy Brocksmith, I.M. Hobson, Jon Polito, John Goodman, Colin Fickes, Todd Alcott, Richard Schiff, Roderick Peeples
Director: Joel Coen
Writers: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Sam Raimi
Producer: Ethan Coen
Director of Photography: Roger Deakins
Production Companies: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Silver Pictures, Warner Bros., Working Title Films, PolyGram Filmproduktion
Release Date: 11 March 1994
Running Time: 110 minutes
Genres: Comedy, Drama
Country: United States of America
Tagline: They took him for a fall guy… but he threw them for a hoop.
Budget and Box Office takings where known