The Hudsucker Proxy is a live action film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. It opened in 1994. Set in the 1940’s, this film begins as Waring Hudsucker, head of the exceedingly prosperous Hudsucker Industries, jumps out of the forty-fourth floor of his own building and dies. Hudsucker Industries board members soon install the naive and seemingly dumb stock boy Norville Barnes as president of the company. They figure that once the public realizes that Norville is a “moron” the company’s stock will go down, and they can buy up the late Hudsucker’s valuable 51% share for pennies on the dollar. The board stands to make loads of money once the stock returns to normal. The Hudsucker Proxy is presented as a tall tale, complete with a narrator/janitor and fantastical happenings, and it doesn’t let reality or the laws of physics stand in the way. In this essay, I will explore the believability of some of its near-miraculous happenings. In The Hudsucker Proxy Joel and Ethan Coen shatter our sense of real-world physics in order to facilitate their crazy story. We believe precisely because of how unbelievable it is.
In animated features and live action movies people are often willing to accept outrageous stories for the sake of entertainment. We are happy to believe in Babe the talking pig and in friendly, singing mice. In the film, Avatar, we have no trouble accepting that humans can be embodied in ten-foot tall blue aliens in order to share their world. The crazy story elements of tall tales, fairy tales, or myths are so over the top we are willing to simply go along for the fun. On the other hand, skewing subtle details of everyday physics seems to be harder to get away with. Audiences are so in tune with how the real world works that when they see slightly wonky special effects presented as reality, viewers are jolted out of the film experience. Take the animated wolves in The Day After Tomorrow. Their fur is life-like, their roars ferocious, but that the wolves’ musculature is rubbery and that their connection with gravity is slightly off, makes them just plain laughable. Audiences begin to disbelieve what they see. Instead, they roll their eyes at the special effects and scoff, “That just isn’t real”.
By contrast, in Hudsucker Proxy, Joel and Ethan Coen make physics so absurd that the audience doesn’t bother to question the impossible. In this film there are three separate incidents where individuals fall (or try to throw themselves) out of a forty-four-story building. In a world of ordinary physics a person falls out of a skyscraper, and then, that person dies. In this film, one dies, one hits the window and lives, and one floats in mid-air as time stops.
The first to fall out of the Hudsucker building is Waring Hudsucker himself. In a classic film moment, a distracted Hudsucker sits at the head a long table during a board meeting only half listening to a member talk about how business is exponentially booming and how rich and “loaded” everyone is. Hudsucker clears his throat as if to say something important, winds his watch, then unexpectedly steps up on the table, runs heavily down the length of the long table, and jumps through a closed glass window. He jumps, the glass shatters, he falls forty-four stories, and he dies – a normal outcome by the standards of reality. Everything seems right and is in place – in the world of physics that is. You jump out of a high enough building, you die right? Well, not always.
The second individual to jump out of the building is a Hudsucker Industries board member. He finds out that without his knowledge all his stock was sold. Instead of being a millionaire, he has nothing. A ruined man, he whimpers, steps onto the table announcing he is “getting off this merry go round”, and runs down the long table mimicking Hudsucker himself. But instead of falling out of the building like Hudsucker, he gets stuck to the glass in a comical Wile E. Coyote kind of way. “Plexiglas”, remarks another board member, “Had it installed last week”. Our character sticks for a few seconds and then slowly starts to slide down the window. In reality, there isn’t enough friction to sustain a fully clothed 200lb man on a 90-degree sheet of Plexiglas. However, regardless of what actually happens in the real world, the viewer is willing to suspend disbelief because they know that the story is really a tall tale. Of course, Joel and Ethan Coen used this effect to make the audience laugh – The Hudsucker Proxy is a comical tale. The quickness of the run, followed by the overdramatic hesitation and then the slow descent to the ground is the exact formula used by all those wonderful Roadrunner cartoons. It gives the scene texture in timing. It’s a tried and true recipe for laughter.
The strangest fall of the three is that of the title’s Hudsucker proxy himself. A pensive Norville Barnes climbs out a window onto a ledge of the towering building during a snowstorm. Finding himself locked out, he accidently slips, falls, and then clings to the ledge with only the tips of his fingers. He cries out for help but he can’t hold up his weight and he falls. We watch him descend for a very long time. Suddenly, he stops mid-air! Norville’s fall is suspended in time. The huge clock face on top of the Hudsucker tower reads 12:24 (12:30 is when he was to hit the ground). The scene cuts to the janitor/narrator who has put a broomstick in the gears of the clock tower. He has stopped time. To add to the complexity, even stopping time has different effects for each person involved in the scene. Norville is stuck in the air, conscious and able to move his head, arms, and feet – as if on a wire. We see the senior board member Sidney J. Mussburger in his office, frozen like a still photograph. There’s a huge smile on his face, along with a stopped-in-mid-swing Newton’s Cradle on his desk. The janitor is unaffected by the time stoppage as he wrestles with a symbol of evil, the handyman Aloysius. The snow continues to fall. Meanwhile, an angel version of Waring Hudsucker floats down with a halo hula hoop and heavy-looking, handcrafted wings – beating about every 5 seconds or so – that sustain him in flight. It is hard to criticize the physics of this scene because ordinary rules are so shattered by the Coen brothers, that we just accept what we see. In this tall tale the wrongness of the physics only furthers the story.
There’s another intriguing aspect of these falls. Through the narration, the Coens make the point that it will take thirty seconds to fall from the forty-four-story Hudsucker Building. It’s a nice round number that we can remember. However, rather than being a fact, the ‘thirty second fall’ becomes a fairy tale element of the story, similar to, “At midnight your coach will become a pumpkin,” or, “Jacob Marley will visit you at 1 AM.” If one were to actually fall from a building of that height it would actually take a much shorter time to hit the ground.
In another pivotal part of the story, a toy seller, angry because no one bought any of the newly invented hula-hoops he has in stock, throws all of the leftover hoops out the back door. Colorful hoops roll down the alleyway and soon fall over – except for one. While all its sister hoops fell after only a couple of feet, this solo red hula hoop manages to make its way down the alley and out onto the street. Then, the hoop turns the corner, goes across the cross walk, stops traffic, and then continues down the street for three more blocks. The red hoop finally falls over in front of a young boy who picks it up and twirls it around his hips. Since the toy seller throws all the hoops at the same time they should have gone roughly similar distances. The fallen hoops didn’t have objects or forces to get in their way; they simply ran out of energy within a few feet. It doesn’t truthfully follow the laws of physics, but it makes sense in the story because the hoop must find the young boy.
The Coen brothers unrelentingly bend the laws of reality in this movie. But far from alienating their audience the unreality adds to its charm and the film is compelling to watch. This discussion brings to mind the Uncanny Valley hypothesis about robotics and 3D animation: The more lifelike a robot becomes, the more humans are repelled by any subtle wrongness in the fabrication of life. To return to film, I feel that when the physics is intentionally and substantially off kilter we more readily allow ourselves to accept it. By contrast, when it’s only slightly off – like the ungrounded rubber wolves in Day After Tomorrow – we’re more apt to cringe, laugh uncomfortably, or snap out of the story. In the tall tale Hudsucker Proxy, the filmmakers flaunt bad physics and yet we readily accept what we see. Joel and Ethan Coen completely disregard some of the basic laws of physics and yet they charm us with their warm fairytale-like story. Without the impossible physics, The Hudsucker Proxy wouldn’t have been nearly so extraordinary and fantastical.