MOVIES | The Coen Brothers’ “Hudsucker Proxy”: A gleaming machine without a heart


In the climactic scene of Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), fat white CinemaScope snowflakes fall among impossibly tall skyscrapers. The film itself is like those snowflakes: beautiful but insubstantial. It will be screening at the Walker Art Center on October 17 as part of this fall’s Regis Film Retrospective.

The film is set in 1958, and the writing/directing/producing team of brothers (Sam Raimi, the cult director who later broke into the big time with 2002’s Spiderman, collaborated on the script) glory in their evocation of the period’s breathlessly optimistic tone—though also taking ample inspiration from the films of earlier decades. The movie’s narrative arc and elements of its style evoke Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), and the Coens’ depictions of Hudsucker Industries’ gleaming tower, vastly spacious executive offices, and frantic subterranean mailroom recall Fritz Lang’s 1927 expressionist masterpiece Metropolis.

The movie tells the story of the rapid rise and equally rapid fall of Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), a naïve young man from Muncie promoted straight from the mailroom to the president’s desk when the founder of industrial giant Hudsucker Industries steps down (a few dozen stories down, in freefall) from his position. Led by calculating executive Sidney Mussburger (Paul Newman), Hudsucker’s board members plan to inspire a panic that will cause the stock’s price to drop to a level where they can snap up a majority share for themselves. As it happens, though, Barnes has a deceptively simple invention up his sleeve, the success of which puts Mussburger’s plan in jeopardy and forces him to fight even dirtier. Meanwhile, ace reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), masquerading as a secretary, is hunting down the truth and developing a soft spot for that idealistic boy from Muncie.

Scene after scene in The Hudsucker Proxy is a visual wonder, and as usual the Coens treat the feature-length script like a verbal playground, putting gleaming turns of vintage phrase into the characters’ mouths and writing dialogue that is, for better and for worse, the apotheosis of cleverness. Leigh swings into the film talking fast and hard, spitting hard-boiled bon mots into the red face of her editor (John Mahoney). As her façade cracks, though, her character becomes so convincingly human that she sticks out like a sore thumb in what continues to be a cast of caricatures. Hudsucker Industries is no place for a girl with a heart, and neither is The Hudsucker Proxy.

Jay Gabler ( is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.

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