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The Hudsucker Proxy (Joel Coen) 1994

    In The Hudsucker Proxy the Coen brothers tackle the genre of classic American studio-produced comedy. It talks like the 30’s, looks like the 40’s and is set in a 50’s New York that only exists as the workplace. The film, like any film by the Coens, is populated with characters that feel like they’re something less than wholly human. The directors push their characters toward emulating the past’s character actors with such uncanny precision that they become misshapen. None of these characters has a home or a life outside the workplace. The film, which follows the rise and fall of a mailroom clerk (Tim Robbins) that lives and creates the American dream, exists entirely within the tight sphere of its genre, and to stop to suggest more would only detract from the overall, streamlined effect.

    In my opinion, The Hudsucker Proxy is the closest the Coen brothers have come to creating a mission statement. It’s a clever satire of the phoniness of the studio system’s product that simultaneously seems to be celebrating it (or, perhaps, its ability to expose its own falseness). There’s such a corporate cleanliness and symmetry to the film that one suspects the brothers’ main target is assembly line, Hollywood-ized narrative itself. It’s probably not coincidental that this film was the first Coen brothers film with a significant budget (over $30 million). The film’s key sequence, and perhaps the key to understanding all of the Coens’ work, is one in which a female reporter’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh - channeling Katherine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell) investigations into what makes the Hudsucker Company tick take on a bold literal dimension. She meets Moses, a black custodian (a part that would feel racist if not for the film's satiric bent) that tends to the firm’s oversized clock. The keeper of the machinery, he is the only person that understands the events as they transpire. He explains to Leigh’s reporter the circularity of the situation and predicts the outcome of the events. The assertion here is that these characters act as they do because they’ve been programmed like machine parts to do so in order to achieve the film’s desired outcome. In this film, which has been programmed so that the little guy will "win", he isn't even free to lose, since the story is ultimately being told by the big guys - complete with their biases, stereotypes, and rigid sense of class structure. They've been getting rich off of selling the little guy a simpleminded, counterfeit dream that he eats up time and again. Worse yet, many little guys are tricked into thinking the big guy's version of their dreams is actually their dream. When the film closes with Moses' narration, his knowledge of another, similar, story that took place on an even higher floor that this one did sounds like nothing less than a threat. 

    It’s rare to see such directness in a Coen brothers production, as they usually seem somewhat aloof about their motives. This film seems to be the key to understanding their work as a whole. Every head whip and hand swing of Leigh’s character has to be accompanied by a whooshing sound because that’s the requirement of the genre taken to its full extreme. They pump up the falseness inherent in this sort of character stereotype until it reaches its breaking point. In some of their films, such as O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the bubble breaks revealing nothing profound underneath the façade. In their better films like this one, and The Big Lebowski, their best film, they manage to make that core of hollowness a reprimand to the ideals that the film’s very specific time and place represent. Here, Hollywood’s corporate perception of the American dream being a direct function of ingenuity and hard work seems to be the target. The inevitability of the story’s outcome and the pre-destined happiness of its stars both feel like arbitrary rules a cruel game. And cruelly, at the film’s end, there’s little implication that the future holds anything but more of the same.

* * * 1/2

October, 2001

Jeremy Heilman