Viking Night: The Hudsucker Proxy
By Bruce Hall
May 21, 2013
These days, everyone loves the Cohen brothers. But that doesn't mean their catalog leaves no room for debate. In it The Hudsucker Proxy is an unpolished gem occupying the space between Barton Fink and Fargo, so don't feel bad if you forgot about it. It's a gumbo of stylistic influences that will either immediately intrigue you or slowly push you away. It mimics the tone of a Frank Capra movie, as produced by Terry Gilliam with set design by Fritz Lang - and if you think that sounds strange, wait until you see it. It’s a curious stylistic mash-up that definitely makes for an arresting visual experience; I just wish I could say the same for the rest of the film.
Our story concerns events following the death of Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), a successful titan of industry who retires by hurling himself from a conference room window, right in front of the board of investors. Second in command is a scheming predator named Mussburger (Paul Newman), who discovers that unless he buys back Hudsucker's stock before the end of the year, the Board will lose control of the company. In an amusing scene whose dialogue is reminiscent of a fractured Dr. Seuss story, the Board concocts a plan to hire the stupidest person they can find to run things into the ground and deplete the stock. This will ensure that when the time is right, they can regain control of the corporation for pennies on the dollar.
Enter Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), a sweet natured navel gazer who might be smarter than he looks, but still not enough to find a job. He stumbles across a help wanted ad that lands him in the Hudsucker mailroom. A chance assignment leads to a private audience with Mussburger, during which a fire breaks out, a window gets broken and a million dollar contract is destroyed. In a flash of inspiration, Mussburger realizes he's found his fool. Barnes is installed as President, and soon his vapid mug is on the cover of every newspaper in America. Hudsucker stock plummets, and the Board rejoices. Everything is going according to plan, until the story catches the eye of investigative reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Archer suspects the arrangement to be a corporate stock swindle, and makes it her business to expose Norville to the world. But after talking her way into his inner circle, she discovers that there's more depth to this lovable dimwit than her cynicism has led her to believe. Better yet, when Norville uses his position to realize a lifelong dream, he accidentally turns the company around! This blows a hole in Mussburger's plot and makes Norville a target for something far more sinister than a fast talking reporter looking for dirt. The story sets itself up for a good versus evil showdown that we never quite get - at least, not in a way that’s consistent with the story’s internal logic. There are so many competing themes here, and so much unfulfilled subtext that Hudsucker feels like a decent movie made out of the exploded bits of other, more narratively coherent films.