Saturday, November 28, 2020

Watch Party Watch: Working Girl (1988)

Watched:  11/27/2020
Format:  Amazon Watch Party
Viewing:  Second, I think
Decade:  so, so 1980's
Director:  Mike Nichols (checks notes) huh.

When Working Girl hit theaters in 1989, I remember it was one of those movies everyone saw - both parents and kids.  A lot of kids with their parents.  It had the gloss on New York City business and the glamour that suggested in the late 1980's as being a part of the high stakes world of business at the heart of American capitalism after eight years of Reaganomics was the pinnacle of success - and a lot of pop culture flowed forth from that.  Right up to and including movies like this, Gremlins 2 and the novel of American Psycho.*

It's an interesting bridging film from the celebration of blue collar lives we saw in film in the 70's and early 1980's and the dumb-ass worship of celebrity and wealth that would come to mark the late 1990's and naughty-oughties.  At least the Gordon Geckos were going to work to make their money instead of just existing in a swirl of designer fashion and bad dye jobs.

Our film centers on Melanie Griffith as a 30-year-old Staten Island woman who is taking night classes to get her business school bona fides and schlepping away as a secretary in the towers of Manhattan, riding the ferry in every day with Joan Cusack (here, made up as the ultimate take on urban-adjacent white trashiness that's one layer of the social strata Manhattan requires to function - a non-upwardly mobile class of secretaries and other grunts who would be replaced by computing and MS Office by the end of '99).  

After a misadventure with a young Oliver Platt and Kevin Spacey, she winds up working for Sigourney Weaver (who in this film claims she is 29 and while as lovely as ever, is clearly not 29 and I don't know if that's a lie or not meant to disarm Griffith's character or not.  But I don't think so.). 

Weaver's character presents herself as a benevolent patrician and team leader, and we're meant to feel Griffith's self-conscious shame as Weaver makes a casual comment about dress code and which, honestly, didn't feel *that* crazy in a "we're being real here" convo.   But it's also supposed to set her up as a villain for not embracing Griffith's "I love Bon Jovi" look.  

She suggests a company that Weaver is working with purchase a radio company instead of a TV company. The plot then hinges on Weaver busting her leg and being in traction for several weeks.  Going through Weaver's confidential files (?), she finds out that Weaver used her idea without giving her credit.  Griffith then uses Weaver's absence to... somehow pose as an executive?  Somehow?  And start working on a deal for a merger?  How?  What?  This all feels very illegal and - frankly - if she's cheesed she didn't get credit for her idea, she could have just brought it up.  One would assume as the secretary of Weaver, she'd have caught wind of it eventually.

I mean, I'm old.  I've worked FT for 23 years.  I can't tell you how many times I've heard an idea I pitched come out of one of my boss's mouths, and I'm sure I've done same (even if I do try to give credit where due).  Your idea - the second it leaves your mouth - belongs to the organization.  I don't want to be a jerk about it - but if you *do* see yourself as a team player, you don't lose your mind over those things, you bring them up at an opportune time.  And keep generating ideas in the meantime so your colleagues see you as someone who can do that "idea" thing.**

Griffith has the gravity well of her life on Staten Island and friends urging her to play it safe and stay with them, and there's something actually really interesting about that (that shit is real, yo).  Cusack is the side of the coin that doesn't want to be one of those execs - she wants the husband and kids in the suburbs. And Elvira inspired make-up. 

As a bridge between the 1980's and 1990's - it's the notion that the blue collar girl can be upwardly mobile, and do it with her gumption - not just show up the wealthy folks, but find her place among them.  Even if she's got to do it through a series of untruths and possibly illegal decisions.  Because in the late 1980's - we wanted to see people WIN at BUSINESS.

Now, I will say - while the movie certainly passes the Bechdel Test, it's also not operating under current movie rules of women giving each other a hand up.  This is 1980's Manhattan!  It's cut-throat competition!  I mean, if nothing else, that would have been an interesting *first* lesson for Griffith's character to learn.  This movie COULD have been about her learning the ropes and showing she has what it takes.  Instead, she launches on a scheme wherein she lies to literally everyone (including arguably tricking Ford into sleeping with her).  Heck, they crash a wedding so she can force herself into a conversation with her possible client on his daughter's wedding day.  That's... sociopathic.

The movie also leans into the audience-pleasing notion that an earthy approach to life and knowledge of the contents of Us magazine is more important, ultimately, than actually doing work or being an expert in your field.  It's the My Cousin Vinny "isn't it lucky this person has some random interest that's useful to our very specific topic!" bit, which is weirdly not very satisfying, narratively.  

I'll be honest, I know exactly zero about "mergers and acquisitions", which is the business that is supposedly happening in this film.  And I assume there are companies that just make this happen - but I was also lost for the duration of the film what they were trying to accomplish other than "mergers sure sound like sexy Manhattan-based business doings!".  

So, yes, in the end, I think Sigourney Weaver's character was right, and Melanie Griffith's character is going to get crushed in her new job and probably wind up in jail - as the only lesson she learned was "if you talk in a baby voice, you will get away with whatever when talking at an old man".

*I'll always be the asshole who contends that the movie isn't a patch on the novel of American Psycho

**Hollywood, however, runs on IP.  And so seeing someone make off with your idea for a crime solving mailbox or whatever is another story.  And that seems to be the level of indignation we're working with here.

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