If there’s one Coen Brothers milestone people are likely to celebrate this year, it’s the 40th anniversary of the pair’s first feature, Blood Simple, which made its debut at the New York Film Festival in the fall of 1984. Their remake of the 1955 dark British comedy The Ladykillers, which turns 20 in March, probably won’t get the same fanfare—which is reasonable, since it’s simply a bad movie. Yet, it would be a shame if the thirtieth anniversary of their most underrated film, The Hudsucker Proxy, went unnoticed.
There’s something interesting about the Coens’ two flops that came out in years that ended with a 4. The Ladykillers is a mess, but they followed it with the 2007 Best Picture-winning adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, which led into an unimpeachable run of movies including A Serious Man, their remake of True Grit, and Inside Llewyn Davis. There’s a similar narrative with The Hudsucker Proxy. After it was mostly panned by critics and ignored by moviegoers, the siblings gave us Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, maybe their most beloved streak of films overall. The big difference is The Hudsucker Proxy, unlike The Ladykillers, shouldn’t be considered a bridge to better offerings; it should be counted among them.
But it isn’t. At least, not as much as it should be. I blame it on the year it was released. 1994 was the year when it felt like the word “indie” first started getting overused by the mainstream press, more often to describe an aesthetic than an ethos. This was the year of cheaply-made classics Pulp Fiction and Clerks, but also big-budget ones like Speed, The Crow, and Natural Born Killers. Hardly scrappy, independent releases—but the vibe of all those films, as well as the stars, and even the soundtracks (all filled with post-punk luminaries, Wax Trax! Records alumni, and even a little Leonard Cohen for good measure) felt designed specifically for Gen. X audiences.
The Hudsucker Proxy, on the other hand, looked like it was made for Boomers or even their parents. And while people today who have been raised to (think) they know everything and can learn whatever they want by scanning Wikipedia or watching a few TikTok videos, the promise of a screwball comedy mixed with a little bit of magical realism, starring Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Paul Newman in one of this finest late-era roles, seemed for—in the words of the New York Times Grunge Lexicon—lamestains confined to the harsh realm. The audiences wanted the Mighty Ducks shooting knuckle pucks and Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt as hot vampires—not Jennifer Jason Leigh talking fast with a Mid-Atlantic accent like she’s going to report one more story with her ex-husband Cary Grant.
A film like The Hudsucker Proxy failing when it was released was simply bad timing. But the thing about good films that are released at the wrong moment is that, sooner or later, they’re rediscovered and looked at in a different light. In this case, we have the Coens’ entry into the canon of Boomer morality tales, a micro-genre of films from the first-half of the ‘90s that were billed as comedies, so a lot of people went looking for laughs and not deep existential questioning. These were movies that asked if all that “Greed is good” stuff from the previous decade was really the way to go. 1990’s Joe Versus the Volcano, Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life and Steve Martin’s L.A. Story the following year, and another film starring Robbins, 1992’s The Player—all of these films playfully ask what the point of everything is. Tom Hanks, as the titular Joe who is going to jump into a volcano, thinks he’s going to die so he finally starts to live. Albert Brooks plays a guy who dies and wakes up in the afterlife, where he has to defend his actions on Earth. The Hudsucker Proxy, on the other hand, wrestles with that old idea of “losing your soul.”