Hudsucker Proxy, The (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"Out of hope, out of rope, out of time."
- William Cobbs in the opening narration of The Hudsucker Proxy

Tim Robbins has a knack for finding his way into superior satires. After taking the lead role in Robert Altman's The Player and starring in his own big-feature directorial debut, Bob Roberts, Robbins has now landed top billing for the latest film from the Coen Brothers, a wickedly funny and incisive lampoon of big business called The Hudsucker Proxy.

When he wanders into Hudsucker Industries for a job in the mail room, Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) is an imbecile from Muncie with a single idea for a children's toy. Coincidentally, as Barnes is going in, the president of the company, Waring Hudsucker, is on his way out -- through the window of the board room on the forty-fourth floor (not counting the Mezzanine). Hudsucker's death sets off a panic; company rules state that since he died without having a will or living relatives, his majority share must be sold on the open market. Determined to devalue the stock so that the current board members can afford to buy it, Chief exec Sidney J. Mussberger (Paul Newman) devises a scheme to destroy the Hudsucker reputation by choosing a complete incompetent for the top seat. At that moment, he meets Norville Barnes...

From the opening sequence, soaring through the snow over the benighted building tops of New York, it's apparent that The Hudsucker Proxy is going to be a awe-inspiring visual experience. Given that the producer/director pairing is brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, who headed such projects as Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, and Barton Fink, the emphasis on set design, artwork, and innovative cinematography (by Roger Deakins), shouldn't come as a surprise.

The Hudsucker Proxy skewers big business on the same shaft that Robert Altman ran Hollywood through with The Player. From the Brazil-like scenes in the cavernous mail room to the convoluted machinations in the board room, this film is pure satire of the nastiest and most enjoyable sort. In this surreal world of 1958 can be found many of the issues confronting large corporations in the 1990s, all twisted to match the filmmakers' vision.

For those who have ever felt stymied by the bureaucratic process, the mail room of The Hudsucker Proxy offers a cartoon-like indictment, with Norville's whirlwind orientation promising him "the boot" if he forgets his employee number or messes up voucher colors. Also, when the moment of silence for Waring is announced, it goes without saying that the brief stoppage of work will demand an appropriate deduction from all paychecks.

The dialogue crackles, with one-liners and double entendres peppering the character exchanges . A Hula Hoop is referred to as an "Extruded Plastic Dingus," and a very un-Wim Wenders-like angel makes an appearance singing "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain."

Tim Robbins, who by now has a firm grasp on how to play characters in films of this nature, is perfect as the dimwitted, good-natured Norville Barnes, a man who fears his old mail room supervisor even after he has been named president. Robbins is effective mingling "straight" acting and physical comedy. Paul Newman, continually chomping on his cigars, provides the perfect villain -- the personification of corrupt corporate ideals. Newman clearly has a lot of fun in this role, and, during the casting process, needed little convincing beyond a reading of the script to accept the part. The scene-stealer, however, is Jennifer Jason Leigh, lampooning Greer Garson and Katherine Hepburn as a fast-talking, tough-as-nails, Pulitzer-prize winning reporter. Her scenes with Bruce Campbell and John Mahoney include so much snappy dialogue that they sometimes feel like a tennis match. And she packs a mean right cross and left hook.

In addition to a number of brief "period piece" parodies (such as a fake newsreel detailing developments at Hudsucker Industries and a scientific dissertation on how a Hula Hoop works), The Hudsucker Proxy includes one of the most openly-hilarious on-screen moments of the year. Then again, there's a lot in this movie to laugh at beyond that single scene.

Neither the Coen brothers nor Sam Raimi are regarded as particularly mainstream, and The Hudsucker Proxy is the first big-budget motion picture from them. Hopefully, the eclectic reputations of the filmmakers will not limit the movie's box office success. With its refined wit and glorious vision, The Hudsucker Proxy is certainly deserving of a wide audience.

Hudsucker Proxy, The (United States, 1994)

Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 1994-03-11
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1