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Reel Streaming: My Favorite Coen Brothers Movie Was a Flop!

Updated: Jan 10

One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 114

By Laurence Lerman / New York City

So reads the company motto atop the skyscraper headquarters of Hudsucker Industries, a mammoth corporation located in Any Big City, U.S.A. It’s the forward-thinking maxim at the heart of 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy, the fifth film by the estimable Coen brothers and my favorite by the idiosyncratic sibs who’ve now been at it for nearly four decades..

Joel and Ethan Coen have written and directed 18 feature films over the past 40 years and it’s unlikely that The Hudsucker Proxy will figure on most critics’ “Top Ten Coen Movies” list, not when there are so many other prime cuts to consider. From acclaimed award-winners Fargo (1995) and No Country for Old Men (2007) to beloved cult entries like Raising Arizona (1987), The Big Lebowski (1998), and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) to one-of-a-kind masterpieces Barton Fink (1991) and A Serious Man (2009), the Coens have a deep bench of great ones to choose from.

The Hudsucker Proxy poster

The Hudsucker Proxy has always spoken to me and I usually re-watch it at the beginning of a new year, and not just because the film includes a memorable New Year’s Eve scene. For me (and my wife, who’s onboard as well), the movie signals an opportunity to look ahead to a future of fresh experiences and opportunities and another shot at some life-affirming fun. As one of the characters in the film declares as New Year’s approaches, “Ol’ daddy Earth fixin' to start one more trip 'round the sun and everybody hopin’ this ride 'round be a little more giddy, a little more gay."

Hudsucker speaks of the allure of what’s going to happen tomorrow and how it’s worth savoring today.

The boardroom of Hudsucker Industries
The boardroom of Hudsucker Industries

Inspired by the Americana cinema of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges, The Hudsucker Proxy is a highly stylized, gently fantastical ’30s-era screwball comedy set in the go-go late ’50s world of big city business. It tells the whirlwind tale of Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), a Capra-esque small-town college graduate who arrives in a wintry New York City (though it’s never actually identified as such) and within a week climbs from an entry level job in the Hudsucker mailroom to the company’s presidential suite.

Along his How to Succeed in Business-like ascent, which finds him crafting a new product “for kids” (as he puts it), he meets fast-talking undercover reporter Amy Archer (a His Girl Friday-ish Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Hudsucker’s gruff second-in-command Sidney Musburger (Paul Newman), who assists in Norville’s elevation as part of a nefarious plot to depress the value of Hudsucker’s stock so that the board can buy it back and seize the company. By the end, Norville takes an inevitable fall (and a literal one) that actually works out for everyone in the film who deserves a happy ending.

Tim Robbins makes it to the executive suite
Tim Robbins makes it to the executive suite

Based on a script that Joel and Ethan Coen and co-screenwriter Sam Raimi wrote in the mid-’80s, the filmmakers knew the film was going to be pricey, so they waited a bit. The right time came in the early ’90s, following the triumph of Barton Fink at Cannes. The Coens teamed up with big-time Hollywood producer Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard), who got them a sizable $25 million budget (their biggest ever, at that time). For the Coens in 1994, the future was indeed now.

A good deal of that budget went to Hudsucker’s dazzling physical production. It was primarily overseen by production designer Dennis Gassner, beginning with the film’s remarkably detailed big city set miniatures and sleek, modernist building interiors. Then there’s Richard Hornung’s costume designs, which colorfully evoke the period—Newman’s bespoke suits are snazzy and strong—and Roger Deakin’s rich cinematography, which makes the colors and textures dance.

Bruce Campbell and fast-talking career gal Jennifer Jason Leigh
Bruce Campbell and fast-talking career gal Jennifer Jason Leigh

Best of all is the soundtrack, which finds the Coens’ go-to composer Carter Burwell adapting classical pieces by Georgian composer Aram Khatchurian, including his renowned “Sabre Dance.” The grandeur and warmth of the score are perfect for the elegant-looking film, particularly its lofty opening sequence and soothing conclusion.

But there’s also plenty of satire, belly laughs and big smiles to go around and a love story between Robbins and Leigh that plays quite sweetly. Meanwhile, the legendary Newman looks like he’s having a great time, and he's abetted with strong supporting turns by Charles Durning, Bill Cobbs and Jim True. There’s also the fleeting but familiar presence of such Coen regulars as John Mahoney, Jon Polito and Steve Buscemi, as well as a 30-second appearance by Peter Gallagher that remains the single funniest bit he’s ever done.

Anna Nicole Smith even pops up for a moment or two!

Well, The Hudsucker Proxy, released wide in the spring of 1994, went on to become one of the biggest flops of the Coen Brothers’ career, ringing up less than $3 million at the domestic box office and another $8 million around the world.

Tim Robbins celebrates the new year
Tim Robbins celebrates the new year

It appeared that the Coen’s method of taking classic American genres and putting their own indelible stamp on them didn’t click this time around. Perhaps it was that the film was too stylized or too romanticized or, as an homage or satire of both the ’30s and ’50s, a little all over the place.

But I really love it and its message of being true to one’s self in the face of business and dreams and love and the chance of hitting the jackpot when it comes to all three. It’s a movie that playfully nudges me forward to embrace a new year and all its possibilities.

The future is now.


Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site

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