It's New Year's Eve 1958 and the clock at the very top of the Hudsucker building is about to turn to midnight, but not everyone is celebrating. One man has been shot up the corporate ladder but now is facing a vertiginous fall, not only in status and finance but literally as well. He is Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), who happens to be the head of company, so why is he edging out onto the ledge of the forty-fourth floor with plans to jump off into oblivion? To know that we must go back to the start of the month when he arrived in New York City fresh from business school and seeking a job...
The Coen brothers showed their aptitude for branching out in different directions with each film with The Hudsucker Proxy, as well as their love of old time Hollywood as they updated the styles of Frank Capra, Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks - but not to the nineties, to the fifties instead. This meant that when it was released, if you were not already a fan of whatever they were paying homage to, and indeed pastiching, then you might well have wondered what the point was with the result that the film did not exactly flourish at the box office, in spite of the backing of megaproducer Joel Silver which offered the Coens their biggest budget yet.
Perhaps the biggest problem was that no matter how sincere the filmmakers were in their endeavours to construct a tribute to their favourite movies, the whole thing looks like a send-up, so when those sincere moments arrive, they don't come across as any different to those where you're supposed to be laughing. But make no mistake: this was a lovingly crafted work, the production design alone is immaculate, with the cast rising to the occasion in roles that could have been written for the classic stars of yesteryear. As a matter of fact, they had one of those stars there in the shape of Paul Newman, not a name of the thirties and forties, but one of the fifties when this was set.
Newman gruffly played the villain of the piece, Sidney J. Mussberger, who springs into action when the head of Hudsucker Induistries (Charles Durning) takes a leap through the window of the boardroom and plummets those forty-four floors to the street below. There are plans in place for what to do when the leader dies, and that's giving over the stock to the public, which would mean the businessmen would lose the fortune they have built up and that would never do. Mussberger hits upon a brainwave: promote a schmoe to the top position and watch him run the company into the ground, then buy back the lower priced stock at the start of the new year; after that they can return to their former profits.
So who do they choose? That's right, Norville, who is working in the mailroom and happens to deliver a dreaded blue letter, but sees this as an opportunity to pitch his new product idea to Mussberger: a circle drawn on a piece of paper. We're not sure if Norville is as clever as he hopes he is, but Robbins finds the heart in the character as he is plunged into the world of big business way over his head - until his circle idea bears fruit. There's a moral about the landscape of the money men being akin to swimming through shark infested waters, and Norville cannot even trust the woman he grows to love, as she is Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh, somewhere between Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn), an ace reporter out to expose the conspiracy. It's all very sweet, really, with the perils of self-awareness never far away, though if the situation grows grave for its lead character as suicide looms the sense of the Coens and co-writer Sam Raimi having fun with these brand new toys lifts it above its hollow centre. It was clever, amusing, but didn't quite strike a chord: a movie-movie. Music by Carter Burwell.