The Narrative of the Lovable Simpleton: The Mythical Year of 1994

Previous articles: Part 1 and Part 2

In 1994, three films came out that followed the narrative of a lovable simpleton: The Hudsucker Proxy, Forrest Gump, and It Could Happen to You. All three films looked back nostalgically on a different time period. The new films also embraced the fairytale elements of these stories and heightened the mythological aspects.

The Character

In all of these films, a certain number of narrative threads happen surrounding the lovable simpleton:

  1. A Correct Masculine Protagonist: A Christ-like figure, the simpleton rarely has to grow or learn anything. Instead, his journey revolves around other people learning to accept him. He will often begin the story as complacent or happy. Oftentimes, his practical behavior proves right and flies in the face of the antagonists. Also, he is a traditionally masculine character that women find attractive.
  2. A Corrupt Antagonist: The Antagonist will often try to corrupt the antagonist in some way. This character often gives the Simpleton a gift of some sort that calls them to action. They receive this gift based on showmanship rather than hard work. The Simpleton does not necessarily want the gift, but takes it. Later in the story, the inherent goodness of the simpleton will work against the corruption of the antagonist.
  3. Dissatisfied Female Characters: Unless she is a matriarchal figure, almost every female character is presented as an unhappy character who needs to grow. In the love story of the films, a woman will leave behind her old life or dream to move in with the protagonist. The narrative discounts any female character that does not serve the simpleton’s story as infantile, frivolous, annoying, and/or destructive.
  4. Distrust of Unmasculine Males: Most of these narratives present men who do not show traditionally masculine qualities as harmful, annoying, and snobbish. The narrative often justifies the simpleton grabbing or assaulting these characters.
  5. Solution: Oftentimes, the simpleton will not succeed based on their actions, but based on a secondary character stepping in to save the day. Therefore, the simpleton succeeds because somebody loves him.

Almost all the simpletons serve these story functions, but perhaps not in the same way.

‘The Hudsucker Proxy’

After the company president commits suicide, naïve recent college graduate Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) gets selected to run the company by a group of executives looking to create panic in its shareholders and depress its stock. However, Norville proves himself as much less dim than they think.

‘Forrest Gump’

Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) lives out forty years of history by following what other people tell him to do.

‘It Could Happen to You’

Not able to afford a tip, lovable cop Charlie Lang (Nicolas Cage) agrees to share his lottery with down on her luck waitress Yvonne Biasi (Bridget Fonda). When he randomly wins the lottery, life becomes more complicated.

Overview

Each of the films had a nostalgic fanciful feel to them. Besides being about more mythical character, the films also take the real-life accomplishments of other people and repurpose them for light entertainment.

‘The Hudsucker Proxy’

The Hudsucker Proxy has its simpleton invent both the Hula Hoop and the Frisbee, both toys made by Wham-O. In fact, the invention of the Hula Hoop came under scrutiny after real inventor Joan Anderson claimed that Arthur Melin stole the idea from her.

As a film, it takes heavy inspiration from Frank Capra and comedy director Preston Sturges. While writers Sam Raimi, Joel and Ethan Coen perhaps use more of Sturges’ style, the premise and characters come more directly from Capra. In particular, they borrow heavily from Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941). Throughout the film, the Coens borrow many of Doe’s cinematic devices and supporting characters, but repurpose them for their own purposes.

‘Forrest Gump’

Forrest Gump basically recounts about thirty years of American history through popular music, movies, and historical references. The painstaking process of recreating many historical figures and putting star Tom Hanks in historical footage garnered much attention at the time. However, Forrest Gump also often depoliticizes and strips the meaning from these historical events in favor of light comedy. A big example of this is Forrest Gump’s run across the country, which he does on a whim. The real person this plot point is based on, Louis Figueroa, was a teenager who ran across the country for cancer research. Forrest Gump also stays in the Watergate hotel and reports the break in, which the film plays off as a joke, without diving deeper into what Watergate meant to the country. The next scene has president Nixon resigning on TV.

Similarly, the film also breaks its perspective for comedic and dramatic effect. Although the film tells the story from Forrest Gump’s perspective, there are a few scenes and shots that do not happen in that perspective. Among these are multiple scenes where a coach calls Forrest an idiot behind his back and Forrest’s love interest leaving him when he sleeps. Even though the story seems to be told from this character’s perspective, it seems to be knowledgeable than him.

‘It Could Happen to You’

For It Could Happen to You, the Filmmakers were inspired by a much less dramatic situation. In reality, the situation happened to two much older friends who then used their winnings for things they wanted. The filmmakers changed it into a love story. While not as obvious as other films, It Could Happen to You does feel like an older movie made in the 1990s. The main theme is the Frank Sinatra song “Young at Heart.”

A Correct Masculine Protagonist

The 1994 films tend to focus on people that society underestimates. However, these characters seem to become more mythical in these versions of the story.

‘The Hudsucker Proxy’

Hudsucker Proxy’s Norville seems like an idiot to everybody except himself at the beginning. He seems like an overgrown boy, but does not quite represent the simpleton in the same way because underneath it all he is secretly brilliant. However, when his success is proven, he becomes a victim of his own success. He seems to play a character rather than being himself, leading the press to dub him as a one trick pony. This causes his secretary Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to confront him and resign over his loss of soul. The end of the film has him regain his idealism.

Norville Barnes does not really have as many lessons to teach. He believes that one can get by on hard work and good skills. Norville champions this innocent idealism even when he has lost his way. He also makes products that appeal to children rather than adults.

In this story, Sidney Mussberger (Paul Newman) is Barnes’ main mentor. However, Mussberger has no real interest in teaching him anything of use. When Mussberger shows him around a party, he starts teaching Norville lessons on how to act at a party, but stops when he realizes it will clash at his plans to make Norville out to be a buffoon.

‘Forrest Gump’

Forrest’s journey basically has him agreeing to go on various journeys people ask him to. He does not really have a goal of his own. Through seemingly agreeing to this, he becomes wealthy and successful, without ever really having to move out of his old house or change. However, the film does not get into Forrest’s ultimate destiny until the end.

The platitudes in the film come not from Forrest, but from his mother (Sally Field). She says phrases like “Life is like a Box of Chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get” and “Stupid is as stupid does.” A single mother, she gets Forrest into a normal school and teaches him about the world. At the end of the story, his mother dies. Before she dies, she talks to Forrest about destiny and how she cannot figure it out for him before reiterating the “box of chocolates” line.

Unlike the other versions of this story, Forrest Gump basically gets chosen by several different people rather than one person. In his review of filmmaker Robert Zemeckis’s Filmography, Patrick H. Willems compares Forrest Gump to the Frank Grimes episode of The Simpsons. That episode posits what would happen if a fantastical character who experiences insane luck like Homer Simpson met an ordinary man who had to work for everything. Like Homer Simpson, Gump finds his way into fame and fortune through sheer luck rather than hard work. Both Simpson and Gump also get to live out such adventures with little to no consequences of what those adventures would actually entail.

‘It Could Happen to You’

In It Could Happen to You, Charlie’s journey with the lottery basically has him performing kind acts for other people. He wants to have kids, but his wife does not.

Throughout It Could Happen to You, Charlie acts in a thoughtful practical way. Charlie tries to be kind to everybody around him. The film shows him interacting with a colorful multi-ethnic cast of characters. He wants kids and thinks that he has enough money to have them, but his wife Muriel (Rosie Perez) does not. When he gets a lottery ticket, he agrees to split it with a down on her luck waitress without telling his wife.

A toned-down film, any Christ-like imagery and allusions for Charlie are more toned down and seem accidental. At one point, Charlie wounds his arm stopping a robbery. At another point, Charlie’s love interest Yvonne refers to Charlie as a saint.

Corrupt Antagonist

Unlike other versions of the story, the antagonist of the story in the 1990s became more obscured. Similarly, the characters in these stories get chosen mostly by fate. The antagonist’s actions become more mythical.

‘The Hudsucker Proxy’

The Hudsucker Proxy portrays its antagonistic company as a nonsensical and ineffective bureaucracy that destroys and gaslights its workers into submission. At the top sit many bald-headed men who reap the rewards of their overworked and underpaid employees.

The intimidating Sidney Mussberger represents the primary antagonist. When Hudsucker dies, the callous Mussberger immediately grabs Hudsucker’s monte cristo cigar and discusses next steps. The number two man at Hudsucker industries, he wants to depress the stock so not just “any slob in a smelly T-Shirt” can buy it. Ultimately Mussberger’s goal is to use Norville and then usurp power to Hudsucker industries. He is motivated by greed and controlling power.

‘Forrest Gump’

While most versions of this story present it as a fairytale like Cindrella, Forrest Gump presents it as more of a tall tale like Paul Bunyan. It seems to have several calls to action, starting with Forrest joining the football team. However, the antagonist does not give him the gift that calls him to action because the film does not have an antagonist that Forrest must face off with. Almost none of the fleshed-out characters who recruit Forrest seem outright antagonistic, mean, or corrupt. Therefore, nobody ever really challenges Forrest’s innocent idealism. The only thing that maybe challenges this is death.

The narrative storytelling also obscures most all possible antagonists. The audience does not really get to know or see the drunken molester father of the love interest, the Vietcong, or other enemies. There are a many small antagonists, but the film never gives the audience much reason to care about them before moving on to another topic.

Since Forrest is also the most accepting person, there is also never a moment where Forrest feels betrayed, even when his love interest Jenny (Robin Wright) leaves without telling him. He just goes about his life.

‘It Could Happen to You’

It Could Happen to You really begins when Charlie wins the lottery based on numbers given to him by his wife Muriel (Rosie Perez), the main antagonist of the film. From the beginning, the wife is presented as vapid, materialistic, and self-centered. She hates living in Queens and does not want to have kids until they are richer. Charlie’s wife of ten years, Muriel was also the first woman he had sex with. According to Charlie, she used to be loving and physically affectionate, but that all changed over time.

Muriel wants to play the lottery because she had a dream of her father telling the numbers. Since Charlie does not really care about it, he uses Muriel’s lottery ticket to pay a tip. Through some form of fate, they win the lottery. However, since Charlie promised this waitress a tip, they now have to share the remaining winnings with her.

Dissatisfied Female Roles

In all three of the 1994 films, the love interest is a troubled woman looking to be independent. However, her dreams prove unfulfilling or destructive. She can only gain happiness by allowing the lovable simpleton to love her, which she remains reluctant to do throughout until the end.

‘The Hudsucker Proxy’

Fast talking Pulitzer prize winning reporter Amy Archer becomes interested on why a company would choose such a buffoon to run their company and believes he is a phony. She works at the New York Argus under Al (John C. Mahoney). Discovering that Norville is from Muncie, Indiana, she goes undercover as Norville’s secretary and poses as a fellow Muncian. When Norville reads what Amy wrote about him, he insults her and lays bare her character flaws without realizing who he is talking to. However, Amy does not realize that she has underestimated the lovable yet buffoonish Norville.

Unlike the other love interests from the 1994 versions, Amy Archer seems to have had loads of success at her job. However, the job has left her cold, bitter, and lonely. Over the course of the story, she will realize this and leave her old life behind because of simpleton Norville Barnes.

‘Forrest Gump’

Forrest Gump has Forrest’s childhood friend Jenny as the love interest in the story. Like the rest of the love interests in the story, she proves sickly and weak in many ways. Jenny also begins the story as the first person his age who accepts Forrest. She gives him advice that ends up saving him multiple times. However, she keeps falling into abusive situations, especially when it comes to men. She is born to a sexually abusive father and dates a physically abusive activist. The only man who rarely seems horrible to her in the story is Forrest. Similarly, she wants to be a singer, but this keeps putting her into more abusive situations. The film portrays her dreams as fruitless, unsatisfying, and ultimately self-destructive.

Throughout the story, the film portrays Jenny as a tragic character, who would be happy if only she could let Forrest love her. At one point, she tells him he doesn’t want to marry her. When they do get married, it is Jenny who asks Forrest, not the other way around.

Besides Jenny, there are also two sleazy women his old Lieutenant brings home with Forrest. His Lieutenant, Dan Taylor (Gary Sinise), has lost his legs and become a wreck. The film portrays these women as both physically and morally repulsive. Dan and Forrest reject both of them off when one of them insults Forrest’s intelligence after Forrest tosses one of them off. Dan throws the other woman onto the bed when she insults his intelligence. They then go after both Forrest’s mental handicap and Forrest’s physical handicap. In that scene, Forrest realizes how Dan does not want to feel like an outsider. The scene is designed to make the audience understand and sympathize with Dan. The audience is not meant to understand the sleazy women.

‘It Could Happen to You’

In It Could Happen to You, the hero’s primary problem seems to be that he is with the wrong woman. Charlie’s wife Muriel had a terrible father and seems to value money and status over everything else. The story happens because Charlie agrees to give up half their winnings without asking Muriel first. The film, however, frames her behavior as so horrible that any indiscretion by Charlie is justified.

His real love interest, Yvonne, has had “bad luck” her whole life. However, her bad luck seems to come from having a child’s level of trust. She moved from Pittsburgh to New York City to be an actress. Her horrible almost ex-husband Eddie (Stanley Tucci) has racked up debt on her credit cards, which has bankrupted her. She now works as a waitress at a diner. A smaller example has her believing a man when he says that he will pay her for his meal and going out to his car to get his wallet.

Throughout the story, Charlie’s generosity helps her out. He gives her half of a lottery ticket as part of a deal. With her winnings, she buys the diner she works in. Noticing that she cannot find her glasses often, he buys her a chain so she can wear them around her neck.

Distrust of Unmasculine Men

Like their predecessors, the 1994 films distrust intellectuals, experts, showmen, and other characters the story deems unmasculine. However, the characters are also larger-than-life this time.

The 1990s versions of the unmasculine men often more closely resemble their Capra counterparts the less antagonizing 1970s versions. However, the film does update them to fit the ideals of the time period. In particular, the character primarily becomes violent only in the most extreme circumstances where somebody they love gets threatened.

‘The Hudsucker Proxy’

Hudsucker Proxy’s opinion of intellectuals and experts is fairly low. Although the film presents Norville as somebody interested in many fields, it presents most intellectuals as insufferable blowhards who do not know what they are talking about. The one intellectual the audience sees in the story is a psychiatrist who jumps to an absurd conclusion about Norville based on his despondent behavior.

In Hudsucker Proxy, Norville acts horribly when fame and fortune go to his head. Norville does not really assault anybody in the story. Norville’s most egregious actions occur with obnoxious elevator operator Buzz (Jim True), who he fires. However, Norville seemed to learn his behavior from Villain Sidney Mussberger. The film also makes a point of how horrible Buzz is when we first meet him. In that introduction, Buzz makes multiple mean and inappropriate jokes about everything from the recent boss’s death to an employee’s weight. He also acts rudely towards Norville. He continues to act this way unless somebody truly powerful comes in contact with him. Buzz also basically steals Norville’s pitch for the Hoola Hoop.

‘Forrest Gump’

In Forrest Gump, the story presents most all of its characters as salt of the earth and relatable. Early in the film, a doctor describes Forrest’s back as “crooked as a politician.” This line sums up how the film sees politics and activists throughout the story. The film contrasts the ideal Alabama with a dark lonely California full of unhappy people doing drugs.

Similarly, the film portrays progressive characters as horrible. A principal says that they are “a progressive school system” before sexually harassing Forrest’s mom into having sex with him. The one intellectual character in the story is Jenny’s radical activist boyfriend Wesley (Geoffrey Blake), who turns out to be abusive. Besides being abusive, the film portrays him as bespectacled and non-athletic. When Wesley hits Jenny, Forrest sees it and justifiably beats up Wesley. Forrest does see Wesley again. In front of him, he tells Jenny she ought to head back to Alabama.

For the most part, Forrest Gump remains a pacifist throughout the story. He runs away from practically everybody who attacks him. When Forrest Gump does beat up a man, it happens because the man attacks Jenny or at least Forrest thinks he does. The first time it happens comes when Forrest sees Jenny making out with a guy in a car and walks over and hits the guy. The second time happens when a man grabs Jenny on stage. He shoves the guy over. He also shows up to this show unannounced.

‘It Could Happen to You’

Throughout It Could Happen to You, there is a distrust of actors and the media. Oftentimes they present actors as akin to con men. Both Yvonne’s ex Eddie and Muriel’s new love Jack Gross (Seymour Cassel) present themselves as lovable sweet helpful guys. However, both end up clearing them out. The film dresses both in clothing that suggests their intentions. Eddie dresses in all black, while Jack Gross dresses in flamboyant suits.

When she decides to divorce Charlie, Muriel hires a nasty lawyer (Richard Jenkins) who twist Charlie and Yvonne’s actions. He begins a sentence with “as we say in Hollywood.” Throughout the story, he interrupts characters at key points and conceals key details that suggest the character’s lovability.

In this film, the person painted as the most annoying is Charlie’s wife Muriel. Halfway through the movie, Muriel decides she wants a divorce. In a particularly heated exchange, Charlie grabs Muriel’s arm. This happens because she and her lawyer have decided to take Yvonne’s winnings too. Muriel then uses this against him in court. The film presents this as an overreaction and political correctness run amok. She later uses this brief loss of temper against him in court. Charlie also later grabs a reporter who asks him an invasive question as he leaves.

Solution

Whereas the previous versions told the story from a pretty much objective point of view, the new films add a narrator. This gives the films a layer of separation from reality. The audience knows from this that they are being told a story rather than experiencing the story themselves. When the narrator is somebody other than the simpleton, it tends to be the black man. However, the narrator also serves another purpose in the story: solving the simpleton’s problems and ending the story.

‘The Hudsucker Proxy’

The Hudsucker Proxy sets up the narrator as Moses the clock man (Bill Cobbs), a black man who works in the clockwork of the Hudsucker building. Throughout the story, the film presents Moses as an omnipresent mythical character who knows everything. The best example of this happens when Amy Archer meets Moses in the clock tower and he reiterates the plot and characterizations to her.

In the climax, Norville falls off the top of the Hudsucker building after climbing out the window. has two big saviors: Moses the clock man and Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning). Norville falls off the clock tower.

Moses the clock man stops the clock, which stops time. Moses addresses the audience and says that he is not supposed to do that. Now Moses must keep time stopped long enough to save Norville.

With time stopped, Waring Hudsucker comes down from heaven to provide a solution for all Charlie’s problems. It turns out that a letter that Norville was supposed to deliver at the beginning solved all of his problems.

Both characters serve to save Norville. Moses fixes his physical problems. Hudsucker fixes his world problems.

‘Forrest Gump’

Forrest Gump introduces its hero two thirds of the way through the story sitting on a bench, waiting for a bus to go see Jenny. It then flashes back to a point earlier in his life, with Forrest narrating the story. By the time the film gets back to the end, the only story that has not be solved is Jenny’s.

Throughout the film, Forrest narrates the story, but the film does not really seem to be from Forrest’s perspective. Forrest has a coach who calls him an idiot behind his back. Various characters watch and react to him on TV. The film shows Jenny leaving him while he sleeps. These scenes seem to exist for comedic and dramatic effect, but also break the subjective perspective of Forrest Gump. While Forrest tells his own story, the film seems to narrate its story from a more knowing perspective.

Jenny’s story ends the film. She reveals that he has a son named Forrest (Haley Joel Osment) from a one-night fling she had with him. By this time, Jenny has gotten her life together and now works as a waitress. However, she is dying of an AIDS. She asks him to marry her. They get married right before she dies.

‘It Could Happen to You’

It Could Happen to You begins by introducing the hero with a black man’s voiceover narration. That man is Angel Dupree (Isaac Hayes), who talks to camera and speaks mostly in exposition. The Voiceover narration reveals Charlie as he performs various heroic tasks from helping a blind man to delivering a baby. Angel pops up throughout the story and sees their good deeds.

After losing all the money to Muriel, Charlie and Yvonne find themselves down on their luck. Public opinion has turned against them. Charlie finds Yvonne hiding in her diner. A homeless man goes to the diner asking for food. The two of them feed him. It turns out that the homeless man was actually Angel Dupree, a photographer for the New York Post. The story breaks about the kindness and the people of the city of New York collectively gives a half a million-dollar tip, curing their financial problems.

Conclusion

Rather than present the simpleton’s story in an objective or theatrical manner, the 1994 films present it in a cinematic larger-than-life way. Miracles and magic do exist in these character’s worlds. They succeed based on dumb luck and love rather than hard work.

It should be noted that the lovable simpleton exists as a movie character in a melodramatic world that favors them. The problems of the simpleton come because of annoying and harmful outside figures. The simpleton rarely (if ever) has to judge ambiguities in character. Throughout the films, the simpleton rarely backs down, learns, compromises, or reflects on bad choices. His problems get solved because people love him or see them as a good person. He purifies the love interest’s heart and holds onto his innocent idealism, but rarely has to deal with being wrong or making decisions in a relationship. When the film ends, the character never has to face consequences. He gets to live on in the minds of the audience, but not in any meaningful reality.