Have there ever been two more willfully perverse filmmakers than the Coen brothers? Following their career trajectory is like trying to draw a chalk outline around the path of a jet ski. They genre hop in the same way a sticky fingered 12 year old switches between gaming platforms.
They’re deliberately maddening.
Over the course of their career they’ve successfully revived and put their own unique stamp on a number of genres: the gothic western; film noir; the police procedural; Hollywood satire and the period piece jailbreak flick. Their movies are often characterized by sudden tonal shifts. They can go from brooding or brutal darkness to surreal, slapstick comedy within the same scene. They also come up with their own heady, soupy genre. The Big Lebowski has the structure and plot of a classic detective film noir, yet is a 90s stoner comedy with bold excursions into surrealism. And even that last sentence doesn’t do justice to its unique potpourri of mind-altering ingredients.
Of all the genres they’ve made forays into, the one that has never really paid off for them, is that of the screwball comedy. Both The Hudsucker Proxy and Intolerable Cruelty were neither critically acclaimed nor did that well at the box office. Yet of the two, Hudsucker is the far superior film. Visually dazzling and packed with hilarious ideas, it’s a pitch perfect pastiche of 1950s screwball comedies (His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, The Front Page all leap to mind) with an assuredly surreal Coen touch.
Why was The Hudsucker Proxy such a box office failure? It’s worth remembering that at this point in their career (1994) their love of jumping genres and defying audience expectations wasn’t really apparent. Their earlier films, Miller’s Crossing and Blood Simple, had been relatively straight (for them) gangster pieces. Raising Arizona gave a glimpse into their quirky, surreal sense of humour, but was still very much structured like a traditional crime caper. This was their first non-crime film. It was their first attempt at full-blown comedy and audiences were left confused – even their own fans didn’t like it.
It’s also worth noting that in 1994 the top comedy films were Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Dumb and Dumber. The top drama films were Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers and The Shawshank Redemption. Audiences either wanted grungy darkness or they wanted Jim Carrey. It wasn’t a good hunting ground for a frothy, 1950s homage to screwball comedy. Especially with a title that sounded more like a corporate prospectus than a family film.
Yet, at the time, The Hudsucker Proxy had the closest thing the Coen brothers had ever had to an all-star cast. Tim Robbins plays the “proxy” of the title – a cheery, happy-go-lucky soul who’s brought into plunge a corporation’s stocks to the depths. Paul Newman plays the cigar-chomping villain. Jennifer Jason Leigh is the love interest. Everyone jumps into the ridiculousness with eager gusto.
In terms of pace this is fast and furious. It never lets up. Jennifer Jason Leigh is a whirling dervish in a highly stylized Katharine Hepburn spoof. Words hurtle and fire out of her mouth like machine gun pellets. She’s an animated blur, wisecracking and speaking at a hundred miles an hour.
This is possibly the Coens’ most stylized film. It doesn’t hide from it. It has absolutely no naturalism whatsoever, but this absolutely works in the construct of the world that they’ve created. There are some wonderful scenes, such as the infamous diner scene when two droll New York cabbies are watching Jennifer Jason Leigh approach Tim Robbins to try and trick him: “…Enter the dame”, “There’s one in every story”; “She’s looking for her mark”; “Maybe he’s wise”, “He don’t look wise,”; and “Lumbago,” “That gag’s so old it’s got whiskers on it!”
You can feel the thrill and pleasure the Coens have in getting their characters to spit out lines like “he’s a patsy” or being able to use words like “dame”.
The movie revels in showing exposition; the female secretary who leans directly to the camera making a “shhh” sound to the audience when a board meeting is in progress. Even its final third act problem is solved through an utterly cheesy and shameless direct address to the camera from a minor character. It’s so over the top it somehow works.
While many critics have noted the pure and joyful 1950s pastiche, the film also functions as a manic satire of crushing corporatisation. Charlie Chaplin’s terrific movie Modern Times is a key influence.
For all its obvious attempts to redo the classic screwball comedies, it ultimately feels more like a Billy Wilder film, perhaps The Apartment. There’s a slight darkness at play here, with the soul-destroying office environments and the greedy ruthlessness of everyone working for Hudsucker. Tim Robbins is a classic Jack Lemmon type, all nervous, boyish energy and, despite being pummelled and constantly outwitted by all around him, still manages to triumph.
The Coens’ films are always confidently made and it often feels as if they are in it to have fun. This absolutely delightful film is pretty much a breathless hoot all the way through. It’s definitely worth another look.