Once upon a time, most people believed that working for a very big company guaranteed job security. It was assumed that hugely successful companies got that way by caring about more than just the bottom line: They cared about people. The notion of employee/employer loyalty held weight. Needless to say, that’s no longer the case — unless you believe Wal-Mart’s advertising.
Today, there are lots of reasons to not want to strap on a tie and ride a desk for the Man. Between downsizing, outsourcing, mergers and acquisitions, it can be a paranoid, soul-crushing way of life. Just ask Dan Foreman (Dennis Quaid) from “In Good Company.” Despite a successful career as the head of ad sales at a weekly sports magazine, he’s just been demoted and replaced with someone half his age (Topher Grace) in the reshuffling that follows his company’s buyout.
Whether corporate anxiety is the backdrop for a larger story or the main plot, movies have been showcasing the downside of working for big business since long before Donald Trump’s first comb-over.
In “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” (1956), Gregory Peck plays a hyper-stressed WWII vet who takes a high-pressure job as a writer for a TV exec in order to provide a “better life” for his wife and children. But as the demands of too much work (and too much TV) pull his family farther apart, Peck realizes that “success” is relative.
That same year saw a big-screen adaptation of the play “The Solid Gold Cadillac,” a movie that’s charmingly hopeful yet also prescient in its depiction of boardroom corruption. Judy Holliday plays a minor stockholder with a conscience who questions such unquestionables as why the executives’ salaries are so high. Often redone for the stage, this story is begging for a big-screen update in our Enron-soiled world.
“The Apartment,” Billy Wilder’s classic 1960 satire, stars Jack Lemmon as a clerk who loans out his apartment to philandering executives for their trysts. As if aiding and abetting adultery in an effort to climb the corporate ladder weren’t soul-sapping enough, Lemmon inadvertently helps push the object of his affection (Shirley MacLaine) into a suicide attempt. While the movie has a happy ending, the depiction of moral bankruptcy, personified by Fred MacMurray as the CEO, is what lingers.
In 1987, at the height of the Reagan/ Bush years, “corporate” wasn’t yet a dirty word, and unmitigated rapacity was often displayed as an attribute. No film better encapsulates that than 1987′s “Wall Street.” Directed by Oliver Stone (a filmmaker not exactly known for subtlety), the movie tries very hard to show the pitfalls of valuing success above all, but has aged into a recruiting video for business school. “Greed is good,” the famous line uttered by über-raider Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas in his slimiest role among many slimy roles), has been used as unironic justification for avarice by young brokers and CPAs ever since.
That same year, Michael J. Fox played an older version of his “Family Ties” yuppie wannabe in “The Secret of My Success.” The film is a very old-fashioned farce about a farm boy who takes a job in the mailroom of his uncle’s New York firm. Fox then successfully masquerades as an exec and is soon enjoying the perks that lofty post provides, including the key to the nice washroom and sex with the boss’ wife (his aunt!). Typical ’80s fluff with a somewhat unseemly sheen, this movie is most keen in its depiction of nasty office politics.
But, wait! Ladies can scheme, too! Witness 1988′s “Working Girl.” Playing a woman with a “head for business and a bod for sin,” Melanie Griffith has to deal with rampant sexism, huge ’80s hair and a horrible boss (Sigourney Weaver) who steals her ideas as she strives to escape the secretarial pool and become a power player.
But the most ludicrous film about corporate backstabbing is 1993′s “The Temp.” Set in the cutthroat world of cookie manufacturing, this camp thriller stars a pre-collagen Lara Flynn Boyle as a twisted temp who connives, mangles, murders and sleeps her way to the top. The peculiar melding of corporate melodrama with slasher-film formula is made even more bizarre by the campy performances of its stars, which include a sleepwalking Timothy Hutton and a Faye Dunaway who, after “Mommie Dearest,” seems unable to create a performance that isn’t over-the-top.
A little more plausible (but just as odd) is 1994′s “The Hudsucker Proxy,” which gives the “small-town boy with big-city dreams” chestnut a fresh spin. Tim Robbins plays Norville Barnes, a recent grad of the Muncie School of Business who is installed as the figural head of Hudsucker Industries as part of a Machiavellian ploy to devalue the company. But Norville’s genius invention of the hula hoop (“You know … for kids!”) only raises the company’s stock and leads to a rude awakening for the naive faux-CEO. Like most of the Coen brothers’ films, “Hudsucker” appeals to a specific palate, and if you can’t get past Jennifer Jason Leigh’s cartoonish reporter (I can’t) or the allegorical inside jokes about the motion-picture industry, it may be as hard to swallow as a cup of office coffee.
But the quintessential movie about corporate hell just might be “Office Space.” While it was a box-office flop when released in 1999, the film has become a cult classic. Written and directed by “Beavis & Butt-head” creator Mike Judge, the movie tells the tale of a frustrated office drone (Ron Livingston) whose hypnosis-induced apathy towards his work leads to a promotion and a bit of “Superman III”-inspired crime. With its spot-on jabs at supercilious bosses, wacko cubicle-dwellers, superfluous paper work, wonky copiers, pernicious efficiency experts and lunchtime at TGI Friday’s, the movie has become a necessary catharsis for anyone who has to wear a tie to work.
Naturally, we’re only scratching the surface here (and note that we didn’t even begin to delve into how business is depicted on TV — this column is too long as it is!). “Citizen Kane,” “Tucker: the Man and His Dream,” “Jerry Maguire,” “Broadcast News,” “Gung Ho,” “The Godfather: Part II” (and, yes, “Part III”), “The Insider,” “Glengarry Glen Ross,” most John Grisham adaptations and even this year’s “The Incredibles” all at least touch on how working for the Man can instill malaise at best — and searing, acid-reflux-inducing self-loathing at worst.
It’s a theme that’s never going to go away, at least as long as capitalism remains our way of life. To many of us, “In Good Company,” while ostensibly a comedy, depicts a more terrifying vision than any horror film.
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