Extra! Extra! Come one, come all to the Brattle Theater! Coen brothers’ THE HUDSUCKER PROXY rings in 1994 with campy hilarity! What, this is old news? We’re on the brink of 2014, and I’m dwelling on a film that came out in 1994? Well, according to the tagline for Hudsucker Industries (the fictional title corporation), “The Future Is Now!” By that irrefutable logic, 2014 could just as easily be 1994, and vice versa—if we take that tagline literally and refute the existence of linear temporality altogether. If the future is now in the past that means the past is now in the future! Where did the present go? Screenings of HUDSUCKER PROXY—produced in 1994, set in 1958—will surely continue to captivate present-day audiences; does that send the present to the past, or the past to the present?
The Coen brothers are certainly not above plotting this kind of circular absurdity; this film is ripe with cheeky paradoxes and metaphysical jokes. In THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, time is a character. It is represented visually or audibly at every turn. Whether it manifests itself as a giant clock, a watch, an alarm, chimes, gears, rhythmic tick-tocking, an old-timey accent, a banner, an outfit, a car…time has the starring role. And, like all the other characters in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, time is a caricature of itself. Time appears in various forms, and the film represents time as something omnipotent, manipulative, and larger than life. Time consistently conforms to many clichés, but it is also capable of breaking its own rules. Notably, we learn at the end of the film that the giant clock on the surface of Hudsucker Industries—an invasive and intimidating symbol throughout the film—has the power to defy physics and suspend the whole city at a standstill. The fantastic Hudsucker Industries is a feeding ground for powerful and power-hungry men. But the giant clock that looms over them has the real power. The mis-en-scene and assorted anecdotes in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY are never stingy about reminding these people of their mortality. The clock is ticking and, when it comes down to it, we are all just gradually approaching the end.
Besides reminding the audience of its sovereignty over us mortals, the characterization of time also succeeds through cultural clichés. The intricate set and costume design make this film a masterful period piece. The Coen brothers bring the audience into a nauseatingly nostalgic fantasy. All the characters, whether it is the fast-talking reporters or the pudgy businessmen, are less like actual human beings and more like abstract facets of the time period. Any and all persons in the Hudsucker universe are just as much “antique” pieces of mis-en-scene as the 1954 Chevrolet that rolls by. The film is a novelty item. And the wistful environment, which has already been objectified by the era, objectifies the people inhabiting it. Indeed, the audience is ambushed by nostalgia not just through the visual aesthetic of the film, but also through the back-story of the main character. The most identifiable trait of the meek Norville Barnes (played by Tim Robbins) is his homesickness; a concept that I’m sure stirs the nostalgia in all of us.
THE HUDSUCKER PROXY has been criticized for being artificial and emotionally uninvolved, which is true. However, the artificiality of the setting and the characters can still be charming, at least in a campy self-referential sort of way. After all, the film does not technically fail at creating identifiable three-dimensional characters. You can’t fail if you don’t try. The Coen brothers squeezed every possible trope out of their characters. Examining any interpersonal interaction in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY demonstrates that no one with any authority during the filming process was interested in attempting emotional depth. Even during dramatic revelations. The complexity of the film is right on the surface.