The Hudsucker Proxy

To follow Seven, another movie that features a guy scraping a name off a glass door.

Perhaps Mr. Urbaniak can supply a list of other movies featuring this character and Film Forum could devote a festival to him. “The Guy Scraping The Name Off The Glass Door Fest.”

Some Coen Bros movies you like right away, some disappoint you at first, some irritate the hell out of you. But all of them have enough going on in them to warrant more than one viewing.

Intolerable Cruelty, for instance, I found slight and superficial at first. Now I love it, watched it twice in one week not long ago.

The Big Lebowski I found a definite disappointment after Fargo. Now it’s one of my favorite movies of all time.

The Hudsucker Proxy, for a long time, I found to be cold, dense and impenetrable. Starting with the title, which virtually implores an audience to stay away. Richly detailed and beautifully mounted as it is, with a career-best performance from the brilliant Jennifer Jason Leigh, I still found the movie soulless and mechanical, which mystified me because I had read the script before seeing the movie, and the script was one of the best I’d ever read, overflowing with warmth, wit, great characters and sharply observed detail.

Now, I still feel like that script is still in there somewhere, but, like every other Coen Bros movie, there’s something else there that I didn’t see before.

The Coen Bros have an interesting problem. They want to tell relatively conventional stories, genre pictures even, but their approach is so unusual that it sometimes blinds the audience to their true purpose. They often will take small character beats or incidental props and blow them up to monumental importance, confusing us as to what is important in the movie.

For instance, in Intolerable Cruelty there is so much weight given to George Clooney’s teeth that one gets distracted from his character, a rather stock Hollywood type, an aging boy who needs to grow a soul. We see this character so often in Hollywood pictures (Jim Carrey in Liar, Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, Tim Allen in almost anything), of course you need a fresh take on him, but only the Coen Bros would say “what if he’s obsessed with his teeth?” (In O Brother it’s Clooney again, but this time it’s his hair.) The accents in Fargo, the rug in Lebowski, the mosquito (and the wallpaper) in Barton Fink, the hat in Millar’s Crossing, etc.

The point is, the hair and the teeth and The Dude’s rug and all that stuff is beside the point. The first time one watches a Coen Bros movie, a lot of time it seems to be a pointless comedy about people acting really weird. But it’s like they point their camera like a magnifying glass at some tiny detail in order to get a new take on an old idea.

And this philosophy extends to their whole directoral stance, and in Hudsucker threatens to capsize the whole ship. The production design, the dense, sparkling dialogue, scenes operating on many different levels at once, the complex montages and camera moves, the elaborate physical gags, and especially the hyper-intellectualized performance by Tim Robbins, all conspire to make a movie so rich on a scene-by-scene level that it’s sometimes hard to even take it all in, much less be warmed by the simple human comedy that lies at the center of the script.

But it’s in there.

Maybe for some people the idea of watching a movie you don’t like over and over until it reveals itself sounds like a chore, but for some reason that’s not the case with the Coen Bros. I can’t think of a movie of theirs I never want to see again.

On another Coen-related topic, oftentimes their slightest movies, on a second or third viewing, take on deep, even profound philosophical, religious or socialogical overtones. Obviously the ideas are in the script, but they never, ever talk about them in interviews. They always talk as if they are making the silliest, most superficial movies in the world. I wonder what, if anything, they tell their actors. I can’t believe that someone like Tim Robbins or Paul Newman or Jeff Bridges is willing to just hit their mark and do what the Coens tell them to. Or maybe they do, maybe when one works with the Coens one is happy to know that the directors know what they’re doing, and not think too much. Although I can’t think of a performance in a Coen Bros movie that looks effortless.

Anyone out there have any Coen stories?
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21 Responses to “The Hudsucker Proxy”
  1. craigjclark says:

    Don’t have a Coen story (sadly), but The Hudsucker Proxy was the first film of theirs that I saw in a theater. It wowed me on that level and if it ever plays at a repertory house, I wholeheartedly recommend the experience to anyone. As you said, the amount of detail in some scenes is staggering. A couple summers ago I ended up watching it twice about a month apart with two different groups of people and I didn’t mind one bit.

    I don’t think I’ve ever walked out of a Coen Brothers movie disappointed, but there were some (The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruely, The Ladykillers) where I thought I had seen everything there was to see the first time. I purchased The Man on DVD solely because of the commentary track by Billy Bob Thornton and the Coens and discovered there was lot more going on than I had previously imagined. And like The Big Lebowski, the feeling that the movie went on for about 20-25 minutes after what seemed like a perfectly good ending went away as well.

    I don’t own Cruelty because when it first came out on DVD there was a period of time where it seemed like we were playing it every day at work. Sure, I learned to appreciate that one more as well, but I also saw it enough times to last a lifetime. Plus, I have the screenplay, which was a lot more foul-mouthed than the toned-down PG-13 version that got released. I have to wonder how the decision to neuter it was arrived at.

    Executive 1: Gentlemen, this movie as it stands is excellent, but we need to maximize our audience. Teenagers love romantic comedies starring middle-aged people and they hate excessive cursing.

    Executive 2: I’ll get our editors on the job immediately. Somebody get Clooney in a recording studio so he can overdub his lines.

    Executive 3: By golly, if this picture doesn’t capture the youth market, I don’t know what will!

    As for The Ladykillers, which I also haven’t picked up, I’m still of two minds on it. The most recent Time Out Film Guide includes an interview with one of the Coens about the film and he says they originally wrote it for Barry Sonnenfeld to direct about a decade ago, but when Sonnenfeld decided not to make it, it landed back in their laps and they decided to give it a go. If you think about it, that makes a hell of a lot of sense, doesn’t it?

    • jammybottoms says:

      Minute details…

      I haven’t seen all of the Coen brother’s movies, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen some of those listed above, but I always really liked those little details that they threw in there. It’s those little things, like George Clooney’s fixation with his hair, that make the characters endearing to me. I love when George Clooney sits up out of a sound sleep and exlaims, “My hair…” Cracks me up every time.

  2. eronanke says:

    A tiny anecdote;
    I saw this movie too young to understand it, (especially since I did not know what the word “Proxy” meant). At any rate, I have watched it in recent years and liked it a great deal. It clearly shows that no matter how hard you push, you can’t keep a good man down.

    • Todd says:

      I still don’t know what the word “Proxy” means.

      • eronanke says:

        Ha! Well, if the President doesn’t have to know it, we don’t either, I suppose.

      • I know….

        A proxy statement is statement required of a United States firm when soliciting shareholder votes. The firm needs to file a proxy statement (14a) with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. This statement is useful in assessing how management is paid and potential conflict-of-interest issues with auditors. The statement includes: 1. Voting procedure and information. 2. Background information about the company’s nominated directors. 3. Director compensation. 4. Executive compensation. 5. A breakdown of audit and non-audit fees paid to the auditor.

        SEC proxy rules: The term “proxy statement” means the statement required by Section 240.14a-3(a) whether or not contained in a single document.

  3. urbaniak says:

    Anyone out there have any Coen stories?

    Well, as you know, I auditioned for them for their new film. Very enjoyable experience even though I didn’t get it.

    I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned the noteworthy fact that in “Hudsucker” two of the actors playing the bit parts of “mailroom screamers” in the orientation scene would go on to prominent Hollywood careers: “The West Wing’s” Richard Schiff and Antz scribe/blogger Todd Alcott.

    • Todd says:

      I didn’t think it was germane to the entry to promote myself, not for that part anyway, but I suppose the cat is now out of the bag.

      I remember Richard Schiff on the set, he and I were both rather amused that we had been flown from our homes to Wilmington and put up in the Hilton in order to shoot our one-line parts. And then you can’t even see Richard’s face in the scene, and they changed everyone’s voices anyway. And the local extras look ten times better than the professional actors hired. Well, that, as they say, is show biz.

      I also very much enjoyed auditioning for them; I tried out for the part of Buzz, the elevator gnat and the casting director, Donna Isaacson, instructed me to go as far as I possibly could in my characterization, and then go a little further beyond that. So I did the scene bigger and more dynamically than I’d ever done anything in my (extremely limited) acting career and was overjoyed to actually have Ethan literally clutching his sides and falling down with laughter. Which is why, I assume, I got any role at all.

      On the set, I don’t remember them speaking to me at all. Tim Robbins did; we spent a minute working out the business of how to get the package into his hands. I sat next to him at lunch and he spent the whole time complaining about his steak, which was entirely gristle. Come to think of it, it was quite a Coenesque moment.

      The mail room set, I should add, was the most amazing I’ve ever seen. Again, the details that were put into the place were simply mind-boggling. The paint on the support pillars was applied in such a way as to yellow and buckled at the base, to look like paint that had been applied decades earlier. Each one of the thousands and thousands of envelopes that you see pouring out of the chutes had a different name and address printed on it, with differet stamp designs printed on them and little logos for different businesses in the return address space. None of this ever shows up on film.

      • craigjclark says:

        Details, details…

        When I think of the mailroom scene in Hudsucker, the only thing I can compare it to is the first scene inside the Ministry of Information in Brazil. There’s so much activity going on and so many people rushing about that you can’t get a fix on anything. Of course, the scene in Brazil has Michael Kamen’s great music under it while Hudsucker has Norville’s employee orientation, which I’ve always felt was one of the movie’s funniest bits of mounting hysteria.

        “File a false complaint…and they dock ya!”

  4. toliverchap says:

    A Larger Question, the “Post-Modern Dilemma”

    I haven’t seen the newest Coen film, the remake of The Ladykillers. Is that one worth watching? This leads me to another question that I was discussing with a few film students last night at a party about remakes and the “no new tale to tell” problem. What do you, as a screen scribe, think about the prevalence of remakes these days? I think that a good adaptation can be great and that in understanding the fundamental elements of a story one can manipulate the pieces to arrive at a new way of telling the same old tale (there are about 36 or so I think). I guess I just see references and combinations of genres as a good solution to further elucidating old ideas and possibly bringing new interpretations to them by using the the nifty tools of cinema (cinematography, mise-en-scene, acting, music, sound, etc.). What’s your expert opinion though?

  5. Todd says:

    Re: A Larger Question, the “Post-Modern Dilemma”

    I enjoyed most of The Ladykillers when I saw it at the theater, and I enjoyed most of it again a couple of weeks ago. I still have problems with the third act, which doesn’t seem to fit with the first two for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on. The performances by Tom Hanks and Irma P. Hall are quite brilliant, but the “commercial comedy” aspects of the movie seem strained and not heartfelt somehow. The third act seems to kind of come out of nowhere. But like I say, I’ve been wrong about the Coens before.

    To answer your broader question, Hollywood doesn’t particularly care about solutions to further elucidate old ideas. Hollywood makes sequels and remakes because they have a better guarantee of a return on their investment.

    A movie like The Ladykillers cost Disney probably something like $100 million to shoot and market. For that kind of money, a studio has only one thing in mind: minimizing their risk. As movies get more and more expensive, the impulse to minimize risk becomes greater.

    Sequels are absurdly expensive, and everyone wants a bigger chunk of the pie for having created a hit. But the studios will continue to make them because there is much less risk involved.

    The studios will turn to anything with a name recognition value, whether it’s an older movie, a bestseller, a old TV series, a hot video game, a comic book, anything. I know of movies that are being developed from popular stickers. I kid you not.

    Sometimes a sequel/remake sucks, and no one goes to see it. Sometimes it turns out quite a bit better than the original, and our culture is enriched. I think that the world is a better place for having the remake of Ocean’s 11 in it.

    For better or worse, remakes and sequels are the vocabulary Hollywood is currently using to express itself.

    • r_sikoryak says:

      Re: A Larger Question, the “Post-Modern Dilemma”

      You know of projects being developed from “popular stickers”?

      Will there finally be a sequel to The Garbage Pail Kids Movie?
      The original left so many questions unanswered.

      • Todd says:

        Re: A Larger Question, the “Post-Modern Dilemma”

        Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. R. Sikoryak has entered the discussion!

        If you don’t know who he is, LEARN.

        • robolizard says:

          Re: A Larger Question, the “Post-Modern Dilemma”

          [gasp!] Not independent cartoonist and all around hipster R. Sikoryak!… right!? [moop]

          • toliverchap says:

            Re: A Larger Question, the “Post-Modern Dilemma”

            Wow I thought I was the only person that saw The Garbage Pal Kids movie. I get what you’re saying about remakes and recognition. I wonder if the emerging media outlets on the net like streaming and podcasts and stuff like Channel 101 and Channel Frederator will lead to a situation where targeted marketing will allow a greater variety in what sort of stuff is made by minmizing the risk. I think once the marketing people have figured things out better than TV ratings and box office it might be possible to take some risks.