Michael Mooreâ€™s latest, Capitalism: A Love Story, opens around the country today, and if the early reviews are any indication, itâ€™s yet another cleverly executed and scathing reminder of how weâ€™re all â€¦ wait, let me check my notes â€¦ ah, yes — majorly screwed. Taken as a whole, the Moore oeuvre seems dedicated to the concept that before we die weâ€™ll all be laid off, betrayed by our government, shot, burdened by lousy, expensive heath care, and cheated out of our tax dollars and retirement funds, possibly all at once.
Moore’s latest is of course aimed at the business titans of Wall Street who let us have it twice, first by ruining our economy, then by wheeling and dealing the government into ponying up billions in public money so they could get started on ruining it again. Iâ€™m sure Capitalism is well executed but no doubt depressing, at least for those of us not on the receiving end of the aforementioned billions. I prefer my cinematic big business to be the fictional kind, where greed may be good but Michael Douglas still goes to white-collar jail at the end, or is at least sexually harassed by Demi Moore. Mrowr!
With that in mind, patch in to my conference call as I review my 300-slide PowerPoint presentation on five random business flicks that deserve the key to the executive washroom.
The Apartment (1960): If you donâ€™t know much about Billy Wilderâ€™s The Apartment, the Best Picture of 1960, you might assume it to be one of those quaint classic movies where everybody talks fast and everything is happy and clever. After all, itâ€™s old, itâ€™s in black and white, and it stars Jack Lemmon (in proto-Tom Hanks mode) and Fred MacMurray, the swell dad from TV’s My Three Sons.
Well, it is clever, but it also happens to be the funniest movie ever made about corporate arrogance, adultery, and suicide (not necessarily in that order). If the NYC insurance company that employs Lemmonâ€™s hapless C.C. Baxter doesnâ€™t make you want to work from home — the desks stretch out across the cavernous office like ancient monoliths, and executives think nothing of bullying an underling into offering up his apartment for their extramarital trysts — nothing will.
Wilder was something of a dark genius who could get away with sly, adult satires that eluded many of his contemporaries; his cross-dressing classic Some Like It Hot (1959) remains one of the great pleasures of the cinema, so subversive and funny you almost canâ€™t believe what youâ€™re seeing. And as for the â€œniceâ€ Mr. MacMurray, watch Wilderâ€™s 1944 murder/adultery noir Double Indemnity to disabuse yourself of that notion.
Incidentally, Wilderâ€™s Sabrina (1954) offers another view of big business, this time through the eyes of Humphrey Bogartâ€™s Linus Larrabee, a tycoon who’s concerned that Audrey Hepburn’s title character may be distracting his playboy brother (William Holden) from the family business because, well, sheâ€™s Audrey Hepburn. Still, I prefer Shirley MacLaine — the quirky, pre-“past lives” Shirley, mind you — in The Apartment. Audrey’s so perfect she makes me nervous.
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Brazil (1985): OK, I know Iâ€™m cheating here since Jonathan Pryceâ€™s aptly named Sam Lowry works for the government, not a corporation, in a dystopian future much more terrifying than the one in Michael Radford’s by-the-numbers take on 1984 from a year earlier. But Brazil, which remains Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece, does for bureaucratic office dronery what Chaplin did for factory work in Modern Times, pushing it just far enough past the point of exaggeration to make it recognizable, hilarious, and utterly depressing all at the same time.
Actually, thatâ€™s a pretty accurate description of the film as a whole. Pryce is perfect as the nervous low-level worker-turned-unlikely terrorist suspect — I think he held the record for most sweat by a lead actor in a film until Albert Brooks took the title from him two years later in Broadcast News — and Robert De Niro is Jack Walsh by way of Rupert Pupkin, playing a rebel who actually succeeds in bucking the system. Iâ€™ve been pushing for a sequel called Harry Tuttle: Air Conditioner Repairman, but Gilliam wonâ€™t answer my e-mails.
Incidentally, I once had the displeasure of watching much of the edited-for-TV version, which is an hour shorter, with pretty much every scene thatâ€™s the least bit dark or challenging, including the entire ending, taken out. If Universal set out to edit Brazil so as to aim it exclusively and directly at idiots, they couldnâ€™t have done a better job. And if corporate idiocy isnâ€™t the perfect recurring theme of big business, I donâ€™t know what is.
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RoboCop (1987): RoboCop is a lot of things: ultraviolent action flick, cynical yet increasingly prescient futuristic satire, the last great Nancy Allen movie. But when you get right down to it, itâ€™s a boardroom drama, featuring a boardroom where there was a very good chance you’d be shot 4,000 times by a killer robot. (Show of hands: How many of you have been in a meeting where you were secretly hoping that robot would turn up and put you out of your misery? Thought so.)
In a movie with no shortage of great villains — Kurtwood Smithâ€™s sadistic Boddicker and Miguel Ferrerâ€™s slimy Morton, of course, among them — Ronny Coxâ€™s Richard â€œDickâ€ Jones has got to go down as one of the top corporate baddies of all time. Heâ€™s completely ruthless, not above any sort of criminal activity or affiliation, and he has no problem chasing underlings out of the menâ€™s room before theyâ€™ve finished peeing. No mercy!
Director Paul Verhoeven never really reached these heights again. Total Recall (1990) may have been vintage Arnold, but Basic Instinct (1992) was, letâ€™s face it, embarrassing (by the 14th sex scene you actually want to scream at Sharon Stone, â€œPut it back on!”; sadly, it’s a piece of advice she still hasn’t taken). This makes me think Verhoeven should go back to his RoboCop roots and do a straight-out business movie, just one without robots. (OK, maybe one.)
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The Secret of My Succe$s (1987): Poor, poor Secret of My Succe$s. For one thing, it has a dollar sign in its name, making it prey to the cinematic truism that all movies in which an S has been replaced by a dollar sign are bound to $uck. (Iâ€™m talking to you, How to Beat the High Co$t of Living.)
But it also never lives up to the charm of its star, Michael J. Fox, who does his best to drag it kicking and screaming into the realm of raucous comedy. Heâ€™s well cast as the would-be businessman who invents an executive alter ego in order to skip a few rungs on the corporate ladder, indulging in an ill-advised affair with his aunt — the bossâ€™s wife — while heâ€™s at it. Unfortunately, if it werenâ€™t for Fred Gwynne there wouldnâ€™t be another remotely likable character in the whole movie. (Extra demerits for the blatant use of â€œOh Yeahâ€ by Yello, a song that will forever belong to Mr. Ferris Bueller, I’m afraid.)
In general The Secret of My Succe$s is a misstep for director Herbert Ross (The Sunshine Boys, The Goodbye Girl), but itâ€™s fondly remembered as a Reagan-era memento, and with Fox having left acting behind for the most part to become a spokesman for Parkinsonâ€™s research, Iâ€™m willing to overlook the filmâ€™s shortcomings to appreciate his performance. Besides, sleeping with your aunt seems pretty tame these days when it comes to Wall Street shenanigans. Now those guys are screwing the entire country.
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Glengarry Glen Ross (1992): I really canâ€™t understate the extent to which Iâ€™d like to be a David Mamet character, spending my days dropping F-bombs, conning clueless marks, and betraying acquaintances (because of course I have no actual friends to betray). And did I mention the F-bombs?
Iâ€™ll work on that, but in the meantime I have the troubled, broken men of Mametâ€™s Glengarry Glen Ross to keep me company. Everyone remembers Alec Baldwinâ€™s sales-meeting rant from James Foleyâ€™s brilliant film adaptation, and justifiably so, even if it is harder to take seriously in the Liz Lemon era. But the performances are stellar to a one. Even Al Pacino turns in a nuanced performance here, or as nuanced as a performance can be while still incorporating the F-, S-, B-, P-, and â€¦ wait, let me check my notes â€¦ ah, yes, C-words (both of them).
Itâ€™s worth noting that some of the best performances in Glengarry come from two veterans of this very column, Jack Lemmon and Jonathan Pryce, both of whom play that other type of Mamet male, the emasculated (yet still foul-mouthed) sad sack in search of redemption that never comes. Watching these actors — the whole ensemble, really — sweat desperation is oddly exhilarating simply because theyâ€™re so good at what they do. Plus, they teach a valuable business lesson: if Alec Baldwin comes into your office, run! I figure if Michael Moore gets that point across in Capitalism: A Love Story, his work will be done.
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