There are some movies, as I said back when I first started this blog, that we aren't supposed to like because of several factors. Perhaps it is because the star is someone that is generally known to have little to no talent, or maybe it is the fact that the film is a remake or a sequel to something much more well liked, or maybe the story is just too strange or odd to really connect with mass amounts of people. Either way, general consensus dictates that the film is of poor quality and so it gets shuffled off to the side to rot. It might surprise you to know that many of my favorite films fall into that outcast group of films we're supposed to not enjoy. I think this is the case for two reasons...one, I've always been a little left-of-center regarding my taste, but also when I see these films my expectations remain low and allow the films a much better chance of impressing me. We come, then, to the film of the day that I have enjoyed since I was in college and which was considered a misfire by those in the know...it has actually become something of a winter tradition too. Every January, I either rent or watch the film on Netflix because I need a good laugh and it delivers (I probably should buy it at some point). It is an underdog story and a gender reversal story which makes it ripe with comic possibilities and full of deeper themes at work, and I think makes it eligible for a second look from the public. So let's head down to Wall Street and conference with The Associate.
Laurel Ayres is a smart and single investment banker trying to move her way up the corporate ladder. She thinks she has a promotion in the bag, but discovers the cold truth about the Wall Street 'boy's club' when her partner, who she trained, takes her promotion right out from under her. Unable to deal with it and tow the line like the other women who have been passed over, Laurel tries to start her own business as an investment banker. All of her old contacts are not interested in working with her because she is an African American woman and she becomes highly discouraged. In a moment of desperation, she invents a fictional partner who is both male and white and makes it seem like he is her boss and the man behind the ideas. She names him Robert S. Cutty and creates an entire persona and identity for him in order to make people believe that he really exists. Then, along with a computer-savvy secretary named Sally Dugan, she begins to become one of the best independent stock brokers in the city. However, when the public demands to see more of Cutty and Laurel begins losing credit to Cutty for her own ideas, she begins to wonder if she will be able to keep the lie going.
The Associate is a seemingly routine comedy with fairly standard comic tropes such as underdog-makes-good and the gender-bender, but there is much more going on than just a standard comedy. The film also takes malicious glee in sending-up the media and their frantic scramble to find the next new face of fame (and to hunt it down when it refuses to appear on camera). I particularly enjoy how it cynically and matter-of-factly points out that everyone is in on the take, from bellhops and concierges of hotels, to high-end business people and professionals. The film also, in it's most prominent theme, examines the effort businessmen go to to keep women (especially women of color) out of their executive board rooms and clubs. A particularly wonderful scene features Laurel (Whoopi Goldberg) entering the Peabody Club (rich males only) dressed as Cutty and unmasking upon accepting the Businessman of the Year award. The men all react with shocked expressions, but the women who are demanded to remain outside and the waiters and bus boys who serve the men, give her a standing ovation. Speaking of performances, while Whoopi is wonderful as always, it is the supporting players who give the film it's most oomph. Dianne Wiest plays Whoopi's overlooked secretary with a sweetness that makes her very likable and pleasant, but also with a bit of tartness to show that she has some attitude to match. Her character is a wonderful foil for Whoopi and a voice of reason to her when her lies begin to become too intricate. Also lighting up the sidelines are Bebe Newurth as a shrewd and sexy accountant, Lanie Kazan as a loud-mouthed reporter, and Tim Daly as Laurel's former partner and chief antagonist of the film. Overall, I would definately place this film next to Working Girl as a "women in business" double feature. See if you haven't, and maybe you'll make it a tradition too. (Apologies, the trailer is in another language.)