The best Christmas movie of our generation was made by two Jewish guys in 1994 and is centered around a different holiday. It was reviled by critics and is often named as a blemish on the respective resumes of its cast. It cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million to make and took in only $2.9 million, according to IMDB. But despite all that, “The Hudsucker Proxy” better captures the spirit of Christmas – and is a more beautifully made, higher-quality film – than any other holiday effort in recent cinematic history.
Set in the month leading up to New Years Eve in 1958, the movie follows the lovably naive Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins, “Green Lantern”) as he arrives in New York City fresh out of school in his hometown of Muncie, Ind. Barnes finds work in the mailroom of Hudsucker Industries, but is quickly promoted to president of that company after the board realizes they need to install an imbecile as head to inspire a drop in stock price to afford to buy a controlling share. Meanwhile, the fast-talking, Pulitzer-winning reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh, “Greenberg”) has installed herself undercover as Barnes’s secretary in the hopes of discovering why the company made a neophyte like Barnes their top officer. The entire thing is framed by an opening scene in which Barnes soft shoes his way onto the ledge of the top floor of a Hudsucker building, looking for all the world like he’s about to jump.
The ambiance, which it’s clear that Joel and Ethan Coen (“True Grit”) strive for in every frame, makes the movie phenomenal in any context. The inside of the Hudsucker building becomes a world unto itself. From the dungeonesque mailroom to the enormous clockroom on the 44th floor (45th, counting the mezzanine), the Coen brothers create a fantastic, self-contained empire that they populate with colorful caricatures of movie stand-bys like the overly talkative elevator man, the sycophantic board of directors and the overbearing bossman. Shots of New York in the snow are used alternately to project a ray of hope or a desolate loneliness onto the proceedings, depending on the orchestral score. Every piece of camera work and every transition has been worked over to keep things moving along through a story that in lesser hands would seem like a silly distraction.
But it’s that plot’s construction that make the film a Christmas classic. What makes a Christmas movie a Christmas movie? Well, there are two types. There’s the jolly old elf method, where a movie drapes itself in the clothing of the season, directly acknowledging the Christmas myth by bringing in reindeer, red suits and sleighs – movies like “Elf,” say, or “The Santa Clause.” These movies are limited by the fact that the scope of influence on their own characters is often limited to the day of Christmas itself, making their feel-good vibes seem a little undeserved.
“The Hudsucker Proxy” belongs to a second category. Rather than trade in unearned holiday sentiment, this class works to explore why we love the holidays. No spoiler, but this usually comes down to getting unexpected but meaningful gifts and being with the ones we love, and “The Hudsucker Proxy” deftly sets up both of those tropes.
There’s no unearned emotion in the endeavor. Conversely, sentimentality is virtually beaten out of any character who would dare to show it. But that’s not to say there’s no holiday magic – the Coen brothers give the story a healthy dash of that, and even acknowledge the ridiculousness of the tradition; deus ex machina is basically its own character in the movie.
In one scene early on, Barnes sits in a diner, feeling helpless because every available job requires work experience he doesn’t have. He scans the classifieds while sipping his coffee, but again comes up empty handed. The camera pulls back to reveal he’s set his coffee cup down on the paper, leaving a brown ring around an ad for the mailroom job he eventually takes, but Barnes doesn’t notice and gets up to go. The paper, incredibly, follows, blowing out of the diners open door and following Barnes down the street until he picks it up and looks. It’s that sort of thing – and, well, the fact that there’s a giant clock maintained by a god-like janitor in the dead center of the movie’s premise – that capture the spirit of Christmas without re-trodding upon cliched Santa stories.
So the season, the plot and the vibe are all there. But just in case there was any doubt that the Coen Brothers actually meant “The Hudsucker Proxy” as a Christmas movie (if a somewhat secular one), think again about that framing device. The movie opens with the narrator describing Barnes’s predicament: “Well the future, that ain’t something you can talk about. But the past, that’s another story.” A deeply depressed man contemplating his life, which is examined through a series of flashbacks – if you need a hint, check the top of any list of the best Christmas movies of all time. Amongst its contemporaries, “The Hudsucker Proxy” deserves similar placement.