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Over & Overs: The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

by Mark Brinkerhoff

The Coen Brothers have no shortage of veritable classics on their résumé (FargoNo Country for Old MenRaising Arizona, etc.), but somewhat overlooked within their filmography are the quirky, sweet (read: non-violent, still absurdist) little diversions into optimism, vs. their patented nihilism. And so, sandwiched between the critical and commercial triumphs Barton Fink and Fargo, arrived The Hudsucker Proxy, the Coens’ mid-‘90s (25th anniversary, y’all!) ode to the zany, screwball comedies of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

They had me at "You know, for kids.”

I was one of the few who saw The Hudsucker Proxy in theaters—it bombed…hard—at the mall where I worked as a teen (at Subway in the food court, natch). In fact, it wasn’t by chance that I saw The Hudsucker Proxy; I actually sought it out, for reasons I can’t totally recall. But loved it I did, from the very first watch... 

Now it’s not like The Hudsucker Proxy is in constant reruns or even always readily available on streaming (although you can catch it now on Cinemax if you have it), but it’s one I got on home video that I absolutely cherish. Why? At first it must’ve been because The Hudsucker Proxy was so non-‘90s, rat-a-tat-tat and rich in art-deco feels at a time when we were swimming in greasiness and grunge. Given that this was the Coens’ first big-budget feature, you can definitely see where the money went—it’s right there on the screen, with the gorgeous production values and costumes of a dreamlike, mid-century New York.

The story itself is a rather simple one: Simpleton arrives from Indiana, brimming with ideas that others doubt or dismiss, stumbling into an incredible opportunity laden with ulterior motives, rising and falling and then getting redemption (and the girl) by the end. But plot points aside, this is a movie that lives or dies on style and banter, and it’s in that vein that I find The Hudsucker Proxy so enjoyable (and endlessly re-watchable). 


-Say, what do you think you were in your previous life, Amy?

-Oh, I don't know. Maybe I was just a fast-talking career gal who thought she was one of the boys.

-Oh no, Amy, pardon me for saying so but I find that very farfetched. That kind of person would come back as a wildebeest, or a warthog. No, I find it more likely that you were a gazelle, with long, graceful legs, gamboling through the underbrush. Perhaps we met once, a chance encounter in a forest glade. I must have been an antelope or an ibex. What times we must have had...

1994 was, anecdotally, a banner year for all three of The Hudsucker Proxy’s (wonderful) stars. Tim Robbins, coming off The Player, followed this up with The Shawshank Redemption and the underrated romcom, I.Q. (another of my Over & Overs). Jennifer Jason Leigh, who reportedly beat out her Single White Female co-star Bridget Fonda—P.S. I miss you!—for this role which was also coveted by Winona Ryder, had Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, one of her many near-Oscar-nom misses. And Paul Newman came back from a four-year screen absence with this and Nobody’s Fool, one of his finest performances. Add in a delightful-as-always Charles Durning, Bill Cobbs, Bruce Campbell, Jim True, and John Mahoney, and you’ve got all of the ingredients to an ensemble that delivered like Domino’s.

The Hudsucker Proxy remains, no joke, one of my top 10 favorite movies—of all time. It’s an eclectic bunch with All About EveDarlingNetworkRosemary’s BabyThe Secret of NIMH, et al, with The Hudsucker Proxy one that I come back to time and time again. It never fails to make me smile.


previously on "Over & Overs"

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Reader Comments (12)

I ALSO SAW THIS IN THEATERS AND LOVED IT RIGHT AWAY. I thought I was the only one. I've never understood why, given the fanaticism for the coen brothers that most people seem to have, that it wasn't more well regarded.

but then you mentioned its optimism and sweetness and i was like "oh yeah, that's why!"

that said i have not seen this frequently or even three times.

September 19, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

How was JJL not nominated for this? Did the Academy just not see it because of its strange title? This will always baffle me.

September 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCash

I went to see it in the cinema because all the reviews kept comparing it to a Rosalind Russell/30's screwball comedies. The trailer looked funny, and it had Paul Newman, so what's not to like?
Why this isn't as loved as "The Big Lebowski" is crazy.
I have managed to convert some members of my family and a few friends, so maybe someday it will get it's due. Btw. Tim Robbins is amazing in this, and the rest of the cast fit perfectly.

September 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Also one of my favorites. Visually fascinating. Jennifer is pure electricity.

September 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

this role which was also coveted by Winona Ryder

That's interesting, if you consider that Winona later played a similar role in Mr. Deeds. (And yes, I realize that Jennifer Jason Leigh's role in The Hudsucker Proxy borrows heavily from Jean Arthur in the original Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.)

September 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBrevity

Bruce Campbell has come out on record to say he has never seen actors quite like Leigh before (Alec Baldwin said something similar in his autobiography, saying she was the best actress he has ever shared the screen with). Campbell called JJL an acting machine and said she never messed up a line even though she had a huge amount of dialogue that had to be delivered in that fast-paced manner. The most fascinating scene that exemplifies that is this one:

She's doing soooo many things at once!
But my favorite of her scenes is when she is pretending to know the school anthem for Muncie as Tim Robbins sings it. Her reactions are flawless:

Brilliant piece of acting. A director's dream, I bet.

September 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJared

This was one I watched and rewatched a lot as a teenager, and always found sweet and screamingly funny.

JJL's performance here is iconic. Only Zellweger can make anything close to a claim post-1990 to capturing the screwball heroine as well as JJL.

Also, this was right around the time the pretty much forgotten "I'll Fly Away" was airing, so I was very excited that Bill Cobbs was in it.

September 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

I like this film as well. I thought it unfortunate that the film not receiving the plaudits usually given to a Coen Bros. enterprise surprising to say the least. But then again I am more interested and invested in the afterlives of theatrically released movies which failed on their initial runs. Maybe someday a film class can use this film to illustrate framing and tracking and non-conventional dialogues and marvel at the range of Jennifer Jason-freaking-Leigh.

I quite like Tim Robbins' wide-eyed enthusiasm here and of course JJL's superb counterpoint to his major chords. This was also still the period when JJL has been appearing in character-driven films starting in Miami Blues, Last Exit to Brooklyn, Crooked Hearts and Single White Female that led to roles as Amy Archer, Dorothy Parker, Sadie Flood, Selena St George, Blondie, etc.

I thought that maybe The Hudsucker Proxy did not quite connect with the audience was because it did not follow the weird and off-kilter beats people came to expect from the Coens' canon. It is a strange mélange of unusual sight gags and putting unconventional spins on familiar dialogues, such as JJL's "there would be a thingamajig that would bring everyone together, even if it kept them apart spatially." Or "I used to think you were a swell guy. Well, to be honest, I thought you were an imbecile. But then I figured out you were a swell guy... A little slow, maybe, but a swell guy. Well, maybe you're not so slow, But you're not so swell either. And it looks like you're an imbecile after all!".

Thanks for the write-up and cool to have an Over & Overs in TFE.

September 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterOwl

I’m so fond of this film and I echo the sentiment that it’s been given short shrift in comparison to other Coen films. Your point about it’s release in the mid-90s, when films from indie auteurs looked and felt grungier, bleaker and scrappier, strikes me as a very likely reason for audiences and critics not really knowing where to put it. I wonder if it would get lost in the same way if released now, given that our expectations of a Coen Bros movie have evolved and they have had a few misses - THP might be seen as the sparkly gem it is?

This period of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s filmography is masterclass after masterclass - I remember watching Short Cuts around the same time as Hudsucker and Mrs Parker and I could barely square that this was the same actress. Sublime.

September 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSally W

It’s one of my fav Coen’s film. Funny and Sweet. Production design are Oscar worthy, JJL is ❤️ Bravo Joel Silver

September 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

I didn't really enjoy it but I have a JJL aversion in general so I probably don't count.

September 20, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

My second fave Coen after O Brother. Lebowski comes next

September 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJesús Alonso

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