1994, Joel and Ethan Coen
The last film that I needed to see in order to have completed the Coen brothers entire works, The Hudsucker Proxy didn’t fail to live up to the lofty expectations their successes have built up for me going into any new project of theirs. As my favorite American filmmakers, it was quite surreal watching this and knowing that it was the last possible new film of theirs that I could see until they release their next one, but thankfully Proxy was a delightfully charming satire that kept a smile on my face even as the characters were falling apart.
After the head of the massively successful Hudsucker Industries commits suicide by jumping out of the top floor of their monolithic headquarters, the board of directors concoct a scheme in order to take control of the company themselves. Led by the smarmy, cunning Sidney Mussberger (played with against-type sleaze by the great Paul Newman), the men realize that if they appoint a dimwit to run the company it’ll tank their stock value and make it affordable for them to buy up a controlling interest and take over. Falling right into their laps is Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), a new employee working in the mailroom who is just the right kind of idiot they can exploit in order to pull it off without a hitch.
Of course in the world of the Coens nothing ever goes according to plan and soon they not only discover that Norville isn’t quite the moron they believed him to be, but they’ve also got the sleuthing hands of Pulitzer-winning reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) working undercover as his assistant to try and break a story on just what’s happening behind the scenes at Hudsucker Industries. The Hudsucker Proxy could have gotten itself bogged down in the semantics of its constantly turning plot or played too far into the romance angle with the relationship that develops between Norville and Amy, but the Coens are always playing things just on the right side of the intricate web they construct.
The deadpan humor comes hard and quick at all times, never resting too long on one joke or letting attempts at comedy seem forced and irrelevant to the plot. Proxy is first and foremost a comedy, but it’s also a quite scathing indictment of the corporate world as the suited upper crust work towards their own gains and even the naive, innocent Norville becomes corrupted by the glamour of his own success. Robbins isn’t an actor I often care for, but the Coens cast him well in the key role, though it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh who runs away with the entire picture.
A constantly underrated talent, this may be her finest performance I’ve seen yet, as Leigh is clearly channeling Rosalind Russell’s portrayal of Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday when it comes to her delivery of ace reporter Archer. She nails the period dialect, the rapid-fire abrasiveness of the Coens’ dialogue for her specifically and hits just the right dramatic beats to make her conflicting emotions believable without straining too far in one direction. With very enjoyable supporting parts and cameos from actors like Charles Durning, Jim True-Frost and Bruce Campbell, Hudsucker Proxy keeps the laughs coming all the way to its ominous climax that we see at the start of the picture where Norville stands suicidal on the ledge outside of his top-floor office.
The deus ex machina in the final act rubbed me a little wrong at first, but once I let it settle I became more appreciative of the way that it capitalizes on the underlying religious themes that play out over the course of the entire picture. Hudsucker Proxy isn’t often mentioned when it comes to the Coens’ works, but it deserves to be appreciated much more as it stands strong among some of the finest that they have to offer. Certainly not on the masterpiece level that their very best achieve, it is nevertheless a consistently entertaining and surprisingly thoughtful piece that presents plenty of laughs and several standout performances. Leigh’s in particular deserves mention as one of the finest in any of their films. A great way for me to close out their filmography, and now I can sit back and wait with heavy anticipation for each of their new releases to come into my world.