A right-minded woman from England once said, “I write about love and money. What else is there?” And if Jane Austen were alive and running a movie studio today, she’d find her two-pronged sensibility more sensible than ever — particularly that second bit. Long a plot lynchpin for any number of genres — heist, noir and western in particular — money and how to get it has been the focus of a fistful of this year’s films, suggesting a niche of their own for these tough times: The Recession Jam.
Whether it be by dint of timing or more prescient design, several films either touched on or took as their central focus the plight of Americans living on the economic edge, and what lengths they will resort to to make ends meet. The following is a list of films that provide a little company for your misery, a little escapism for those that prefer it, and a couple of laughs, if you can manage them through your broke-ass tears.
Recession Jam: Shafted by her husband just before Christmas, Ray (Melissa Leo), a mother of two working for minimum wage in upstate New York, doesn’t have the money to pay for the new double-wide trailer she has promised her boys.
Resort: Human smuggling
Courtney Hunt’s debut may go a little pear-shaped in the end, but Ray Eddy is like a Mildred Pierce for the new millennium — you get the feeling she would have taken the waitressing gig Mildred worried was beneath her, but the job just isn’t there. When Ray’s old beater of a car is stolen, she tracks it to the trailer of a Native American woman and becomes involved in a racket of trafficking illegal immigrants across the frozen St. Lawrence river, a portion of which is on the reservation and therefore out of state jurisdiction. Ray’s elder son T.J. (Charlie McDermott) lets his own consumer lust lead him into credit card fraud, and eventually the whole family is on the brink of homelessness.
“Wendy and Lucy”
Recession Jam: On her way to Alaska, the only place in the country that seems to be offering employment, Wendy (Michelle Williams) pulls into a Walgreens parking lot in an Oregon town, only to be unable to restart her car. Jiggling every morsel out of an econo-sized bag to feed her dog Lucy, Wendy crunches her meager numbers and finds that shit is just not adding up.
It’s impulsive, an almost unconscious act of resistance more than that of desperation, but when Wendy boosts some dog food from a local supermarket, a chain reaction is set off: she is caught by an overzealous stockboy who calls the police, and while the cops take their time getting Wendy’s fingerprints at the station, Lucy remains tied up in the supermarket’s parking lot. Director Kelly Reichardt suggests Wendy’s world is unbearably fragile, so quickly reducible to the tiny, broken down car she sleeps in; with a couple of exceptions, everyone and everything outside of that sanctuary is indifferent or frustratingly out of reach. Reichardt’s style has been compared to that of the early neorealism of De Sica, with Wendy as a modern-day Antonio in “The Bicycle Thief.” To me, she has more in common with little Bruno, who calls in terror and disbelief as his humiliated papa is hauled away. Fatherless on an epic scale, Williams’ hoodie-clad waif, huddled into the open car of a freight train in the final scene, wears the face of a child without a country.
“Zack and Miri Make a Porno”
Recession Jam: Roommates Zack and Miri are 28-year-olds barely getting by on their service industry wages when several bills come due.
When the water, heat, and electricity are finally turned off in the dead of winter and they can no longer live by the warmth of their unrequited sexual tension, Zack and Miri decide the only surefire way to get by is to join one of the biggest economies in the country: porn. Director Kevin Smith is firing on all working class cylinders — from the vintage candy-colored iBook and maxed out credit cards to the setting of Pittsburgh, PA, where it’s always grey and slushy — and provides the rare example of a desperate solution actually leading to a happy (ergh) ending.
Recession Jam: Well, the film centers on 30-year-old living with a roommate — that’s close enough for me.
Resort: Pathological cheerfulness
Mike Leigh makes a recession jam out of North London, where the damp air and the
large urban sections resemble Michigan at its greyest, a place where you can always find a recession if you look hard enough. This time Leigh casts his lens on Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a schoolteacher who frugs obliviously on the brink of the disappearing middle class. She isn’t necessarily struggling to get by, but with her thrift store clothes and penchant for window shopping and binge drinking, Leigh seems to suggest that under similar circumstances, one with a temperament less disposed to make the best of absolutely everything would be feeling more pain.
Recession Jam: Located deep within the existential recession that is white trash-hood is Angie Ostrowiski (Amy Poehler), a Philly skid on the make.
Resort: Surrogate motherhood
Dudes have been donating sperm for beer money for decades, and girls soon got into the act with the even more lucrative business of egg donation, but the true mother lode is renting out your womb to the highest bidder, which is part of the premise for the Poehler-Tina Fey comedy. The most obvious of the many disparities between Fey’s corporate shill and Poehler’s shiftless homegirl is that of economic class, and yet without it, they never would have met. Interestingly, a plot point here matches that used in “Zack and Miri”: real estate being hijacked by corporate vultures (Fey’s organic food company encroaches on an independent smoothie store). We’re back to the land, it seems.
“Burn After Reading”
Recession Jam: Yes, all of the Coen brothers’ films are about money and greed, and their most recent is more directly in the vein of the black farce/heists amok they love, but the plight of gym wallahs Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt) edge it in. They work for peanuts and they want more.
Chad and Linda think they’re onto something huge when they come across some largely indecipherable documents on a CD left at the gym by a former CIA agent’s (John Malkovich) secretary. They attempt to extort big money from the CIA agent in return for the disc and their silence about its contents so that Linda might be able to afford an obsessive course of plastic surgery. While Chad has the happy-go-lucky approach to relative disenfranchisement, Linda, chafing under economic restraint, has channeled her frustration into irrational dissatisfaction with her appearance. Black hilarity ensues.
Recession Jam: It seems even a government job doesn’t cut it. Three employees of the Federal Reserve are facing dire straights: Bridget (Diane Keaton) is in debt after her husband is laid off, while the others (Queen Latifah, Katie Holmes) work at a more menial level and can’t quite take care of business.
This is a terrible movie notable mainly for the most blatant depiction of effing The Man on the list. We are meant to root for the three characters, all female, to get away with stealing millions from the government with a scheme of pocketing old currency destined to be destroyed. They’re absolved of the crime, but then the IRS becomes the enemy when they’re forced to deplete most of the loot for taxes. Never fear, a hidden stash is revealed in the final act. Hooray for embezzlement and tax evasion!
Recession Jam: Greed. Eyes bigger than wallets. Everything. We’re doomed.
Resort: Credit card debt; overspending; borrowing in general
This documentary (which I referred to elsewhere as “An Inconvenient Truth” for the economic crisis) illustrates, in terrifying detail, the exact depth and viscosity of the shit this country is in. Indebted to other countries for trillions of dollars and with a trade deficit that could threaten to sink us at any moment, large scale fiscal irresponsibility finds its counterpart in the tyranny of individual credit card and mortgage debt, a problem touched on here and more fully explored in the 2006 documentary, “Maxed Out.”
Honorary Mentions/Satellite Jams: “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Trouble the Water”
One — a fable about an Indian slum boy who wins big on a game show — is feel-good but doesn’t deal with the United States, the other — a documentary about one woman’s experience of Hurricane Katrina in poorest New Orleans — is feel-bad, then feel a little better, and all too close to home. Unlike the films on the list, which focus mainly on white folks (because you know things are bad when they are suffering), these two films deal with brown people living in extreme poverty. Both are instructive: it’s important to remember that good things still happen, even if for now it’s only at the movies; and that things could always be worse, even when they’re worse than you ever remember them being before. I knew it before the recession, and before I saw these movies, but I know it better now: the best way to take care of yourself is to remember to look out for someone else. Happy New Year.
[Photos: “Frozen River,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2008; “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” Weinstein Co, 2008; “Baby Mama,” Universal Pictures, 2008; “Mad Money,” Overture Films, 2008; “Slumdog Millionaire,” Fox Searchlight, 2008]