not in our stars, but in ourselves
There’s something strange and lonely about loving a movie that nearly no one else loves, or even likes. I don’t mean the ironic (or even sincere) enjoyment of unabashed trash, like The Room or Showgirls. I don’t mean taking the pro position on a movie that most people hate but a passionate few defend, like The Hateful Eight or Only God Forgives. No, I’m talking about The Hudsucker Proxy, a Coen Brothers movie about which apparently no one except me and my boyfriend (and maybe a few of you) have unrelentingly positive things to say.
We begin towards the end: a few moments before midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1958, Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) has stepped out of his office on the 44th floor (45th, if you count the mezzanine) in order to jump. What brought him there? Some weeks/months before, Barnes was a bright-eyed graduate of the Muncie College of Business Administration. He arrives in New York City, ready to put his big ideas to good use, but he has to start all the way at the bottom: in the mailroom of Hudsucker Industries. Moments after he enters the building, Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning) jumps out of it. No one in the board room – from which he leapt – can understand why he would have killed himself, since Hudsucker Industries is doing so well; but that doesn’t matter. Hudsucker’s right-hand man, Sidney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman), instantly devises a plan. In order to ensure that the currently valuable Hudsucker stock plummets enough that the board can buy it all up, Mussburger decides to hire a complete idiot as the company’s new president. Enter Norville. A fast-talking, Pulitzer-winning newspaper gal, Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), decides to investigate this neophyte. She writes a story about the “imbecile” who’s taken the reins, but she comes to find Barnes charmingly sweet after a while. He, for his part, has a brilliant idea that he’s been working on for years: the hula hoop. Mussburger gives the go-ahead to send it into production, confident that it will accelerate the company’s downward trend – but what do you know, it’s a sensation, and the company does better than ever. At that point, Mussburger arranges to have Barnes psychologically evaluated, and he’s naturally found insane. Mussburger tells Barnes that he’ll be dismissed on January 1st, and sent to an asylum to boot. Barnes is upset, understandably, but a bit of divine intervention sets things right again.
It is genuinely mystifying to me that anyone could watch this tight, fast-paced, endlessly entertaining little sendup of corporatism, and think it was anything less than delightful. And yet, here we are: Owen Glieberman (who’s in trouble for being a dumbass, quite rightly) gave it a C; Christopher Orr, in his rewatch of all the Coens’ films, ranked it 15 out of 16 (as of 2014) and sniffed that the reason it flopped at the box office, “in a nutshell, is that The Hudsucker Proxy is not a good movie”; Roger Ebert gave it two stars; Jonathan Rosenbaum dismissed it for supposedly dismissing its audiences as Barnes-like “hayseeds”; and that master aggregator of critical consensus, Rotten Tomatoes, reports that it holds a score of 58%. Far be it from me to accuse professional critics of being fucking morons with awful taste, but…wait, that’s exactly what I’m accusing them of. Why do you all hate joy? Get it together, guys. (Ebert, you’re okay, wherever you are.)
Let me tell you why Hudsucker is wonderful. For one thing, just look at this whole hula hoop sequence, directed by Sam Raimi. How the hell could you not love that? For another thing, as a pastiche of some of classical Hollywood’s greatest hits – the 1930s rapid-fire newspaper farce, the 1950s corporate rat-race dramedy, the masterful eclecticism of Hawks and the hopefulness of Capra and the good-natured acidity of Sturges – it’s fabulous. And for yet another thing, it’s a perfectly retro-fitted companion piece to Brazil, playing up the Langian grandness of all those big, cold, terrifyingly overwhelming skyscrapers and boardrooms. Beyond the Coens’ deep love for, and fluency with, all these bygone masterpieces, there are the players themselves. Unlike his best-known role in everyone’s favorite guy-cry movie, where he’s restrained and withdrawn and burning with quiet fury, he’s a tall, lanky goofball here. The Coens are excellent at coaxing out physical performances from their actors, and Robbins’s rubbery face and oversize limbs flail and screw themselves up to perfection. Leigh handles the verbal acrobatics, firing off about a million words per second (whether she’s talking or typing) with perfect clarity. She’s Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck: ferociously intelligent, fast-talking and hard-headed, putting up a big front to avoid being hurt, capable of deepest devotion as long as she feels she’s fully appreciated. And Newman’s performance – sly, cruel, wry, and witty – makes me wish the Coens had been around since the ’50s themselves, so they could have written a few dozen movies with him as the star.
I loved it. What can I say? No, it’s not a great work of art, like Fargo or No Country for Old Men or The Big Lebowski – but it is, in my opinion, just as much fun as Raising Arizona. It seems to me that too many critics misunderstand the Coens as a couple of misanthropes, but I insist that just the opposite is true. Yes, true: some of their films are brutally violent. People do downright terrible things to one another in some of them. People die. People kill. People suffer. But you never forget the cost of all that violence, because the Coens are – if you ask me, anyway, and why should you – humanists. They see these screwed up people, and they understand why they do the stupid things they do. Everyone does stupid things. You do. I do. We just don’t always have the stakes set so high. Here, the stakes are lower than they sometimes are in the Coensverse; all Barnes has to worry about is keeping his job, not escaping Anton Chigurh or masterminding the kidnapping of his own wife. Whatever the stakes, whatever the scenario, I will continue to insist that the Coens hope against hope that their little idiots will turn out okay. They all have the power to choose, and sometimes they choose poorly.