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List: The Recession Jam

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By Michelle Orange

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.

12292008_frozenriver.jpg“Frozen River”

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.

Resort: Shoplifting

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.

12292008_zackandmiri.jpg“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.

Resort: Pornography

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.

12292008_babymma.jpg“Baby Mama”

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.

Resort: Blackmail

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.

12292008_madmoney.jpg“Mad Money”

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.

Resort: Embezzlement

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.”

12292008_slumdogmillionaire.jpgHonorary 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]



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.