A dozen good films about business

Most Hollywood films treat business with as much depth and insight as they reserve for pet psychologists. Businesspeople are generally treated as stock figures, shallow caricatures whose sole function is to introduce a comic element or move the plot along. Work is generally seen (if at all) as one of two extremes: our heroic characters are uber-businessfolk a la Richard Gere in Pretty Woman or Mel Gibson in Ransom; or they are noble exploited underdogs like Sally Field in Norma Rae or Debra Winger in An Officer and A Gentleman. It's a rare movie that takes the world of work seriously, and rarer still for a studio film to explore work with anything but contempt or naivete.

Certainly there are good reasons why Hollywood stories defy the world of work that most of us know. Films need conflict, action, clearly defined heroes and villains. Yet while most of us recognize these themes in our business, our plot points don't wrap up neatly in 90 minutes, nor can we score them with a dark theme from Bernard Hermann or a nifty pop song like I Heard It Through the Grapevine.

That's why movies with an element of truth about the world of work are about as common as a quality movie picking up an Oscar for best picture. Not impossible, but not frequent. The following list attempts to pick out the twelve best films about small business. I've come up with a few rules for this list. No films with board room scenes, which tempt ridicule. No CEOs or corporate raiders. No murders (unless they're really necessary.) I've also ruled out entire professions (such as prostitution, crime, owning a bookstore, or working in the film business itself) that are regularly depicted on film by folks who look nothing like their real world counterparts. Sure, in Hollywood pictures most hookers look like Julia Roberts, and all bums clean up to be Nick Nolte (in Down and Out in Beverly Hills.) But let's face it, most of us look more like Wayne Huizenga than Warren Beatty.

The following movies all deal with the daily life of business, the real drama that our work brings out in us. In these movies, work doesn't necessarily take place anyhow in a corner. Rather, work takes center stage, and the choices these characters make within their work lives reveal who they are. And, in my humble opinion, these movies are all great films.

In no particular order the films are:

Billy Wilder co-wrote and directed the 1960 film The Apartment, which starred Jack Lemmon as C.C. "Bud" Baxter, an ambitious advertising executive willing to share his apartment with middle managers who need a lovenest for their trysts. Cynical to the core, this movie posits corporate life as a hierarchical, political, boys club that lavishes perks on those broad-shouldered insiders who know how to suck up to power as a means of acquiring it themselves. This loving look at the tradeoffs in the name of ambition ultimately tips its Bowler hat to sentimental compassion-which results in a fall from the corporate ladder for Baxter, who doesn't mind, cause he gets the girl.

The Van, directed by Stephen Frears from a Roddy Doyle script from his own book, is a loving and detailed look at how two friends create a small business out of thin air, and then live out a new life within the bounds of this venture. No other film so lovingly depicts the small details of doing business that mean so very much, or revels in the way that a small business completely overwhelms one's life. Two unemployed Dublin men launch Bimbo's Burgers, a humble fish-and-chips van, to regain their dignity and make a living-and then find that the control they've taken over in their lives gives way to the control that the van assumes over them. In everything from battles with health inspectors to home testing of the "chipper" batter, this film gets the spirit of small business.

Big Night captures the tension that so many small shop owners (especially restaurateurs) find between art and commerce. "This is a restaurant, not a f------ school!" screams younger brother Secondo to Primo, a chef who's so devoted to his craft that he must be restrained from lecturing diners who insist on ordering the wrong starch with their entre. Stanley Tucci co-wrote (with his cousin Joseph Tropiano) and co-directed (with Campbell Scott) this 1996 valentine to the passion for food that drives so many artisans to launch ill-fated restaurants.

And who could ever pass on the 1957 Ernest Lehman & Clifford Odets-penned, Alexander Mackendrick-directed Sweet Smell of Success? Sure, the characters speak in over the top film noir excesses ("Stanley, you're a fortune cookie filled with arsenic" or "My right hand doesn't know what my left has done for thirty years.") Yet they speak to a deeper truth about the cost of ambition; and Tony Curtis's savage, charming, utterly charasmatic character Sydney Falco remains a publicist's (anti)hero today. His desperate efforts to build his struggling PR company are both pathetic and achingly familiar to those of us who have been frustrated to have their major client, customer, and market (rolled up into one character, the powerful columnist J.J Hunsecker played by Burt Lancaster) dangle the big score before their eyes.

Okay, so what is Mary Poppins doing on this list? It's a children's film, right, a cute musical. Actually, I believe this 1964 film delivers a far more insightful and nuanced view of the work-family conflict than most movies today. The movie opens with a patriarchal father who is distant from his family, proudly singing "I am the lord of my castle, the sovereign, the liege." And yet, by the end of the film, Mary Poppins has completely reversed his stance on work-family values (embodied by his decision to fly a kite with his children,), infected the culture of his staid bank with humor, no less, and then, in the most radical move, she leaves! A mere catalyst for change, she renders the changed household nanny-less, the assumption being that they can fend for themselves.

You think you've got trouble with employees? If so, then catch the 1994 independent film classic Clerks, and count your blessings. In this first film from director Kevin Smith, clerks Dante and Randal do all they can to defy the responsibilities of their numbingly mundane jobs watching over a shabby video store and glum new Jersey convenience store. During the course of their day, these two insult customers, close shop to play hockey on the roof, and skip out for a funeral. Not only do they loathe their jobs, but they feel superior to the customers. "Any moron can waltz in here and do our jobs, but you're so obsessed with making it seem so much more fucking important, so much more epic than it really is. You work in a convenience store, Dante. And badly, I might add," reveals Randal in a moment of truth.

"We are losing our battle with all that is personal and real about our business," says the title character in Cameron Crowe's 1996 Jerry Maguire, a wonderful film in which Tom Cruise plays a sports agent who quits his large sports agency to regain the poetry in his work. His struggles to balance his integrity with his startups' survival animate this engaging film. Never mind that at the film's close Cruise's character seems on track towards recreating the values from which he fled. This film still finds moral and spiritual drama in the efforts of two folks to align their personal and professional lives. And yes, it introduced the phrase we've all cited: "Show me the money." And better yet, Cameron Crowe is probably the only screenwriter ever to have created dramatic conflict surrounding the creation of a Mission Statement.

Stephen Frears directed the 1985 My Beautiful Laundrette from a script by Hanif Kureishi. This terrifically smart and incisive film explores the politics of entrepreneurship as a vehicle for the ambitious dispossessed-in this case Pakastani immigrants in Margaret Thatcher's mid-eighties Great Britain. In the film, young Omar falls under the sway of his ambitious uncle Nasser, a go-getter who has made built a small success with parking garages. When Omar is persuaded to run his uncles new laundrette, the movie explores how work can easily subvert family and loving relationships. And when Omar invites his old lover Johnny to work for him, in a not completely benign gesture, we see how past relationships always color the ostensibly new rules one should abide by in a small business.

While the bonds between low-paid workers in small retail joints can be dark, the flip side of employee bonding is delightfully celebrated in the 2000 film High Fidelity, from the popular British book by Nick Hornsby. John Cusack plays Rob Gordon, whose Chicago record store seems more of an excuse for him to accumulate the world's largest selection of titles than to conduct healthy business. Adding to his commercial challenges are the obnoxious antics of Barry, whose snobbery takes the form of antagonizing customers; and Vince, the passive musical zealot who seems more interested in chatting up the customers than serving them. Nonetheless, the relationship between these small shop colleagues is one of the most satisfying elements in this enjoyable film.

In the 1945 film noir classic Mildred Pierce, Joan Crawford plays an accidental entrepreneur, a woman whose string of successful restaurants seems to an almost incidental result of her pure ambition to provide the world for her daughter. Okay, the plot centers around a murder, an implausible workplace type of event; yet her passion to succeed as a means of providing for her family and creating a station in life is entirely plausible. And isn't it nice to see a successful female entrepreneur thrive, even if, like Thelma and Louise, there seem to be final consequences to her strong choices?

Blue Collar merits attention because it has the guts to look at union-management issues without making assumptions about who is morally superior. Paul Schrader's 1978 directorial debut made no bones about portraying the managers of an automobile factory as tough, cold, cynics trying to exploit the laborers. Yet on the other hand the movie avoids the Hollywood stock characterization of working class characters as innate heroes. In fact, Richard Pryor delivers a stunning performance as Zeke, a lineman who is so overwhelmed by the system that he convinces his two working buddies to rob the very union that's supposed to represent them.

And finally, how can you not love a film in which a character's strength reveals itself when he spews out statistics from the actuarial tables he knows better than a preacher knows the bible? In today's movies serious workers (folks who know numbers or technical know-how) are ridiculed as nerds or villains. Yet Edward G. Robinson, the clever and diligent Keyes, is the heroic insurance company manager who comes to uncover the sordid murder engineered by Fred MacMurray's Walter Neff, in the 1944 Billy Wilder classic Double Indemnity. Okay, so the movie centers around a murder (mea culpa again), yet I'm willing to overlook this cinematic liberty. The movie redeems itself as a work classic for one great reason. MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck are great as the lovers who engineer the murder, yet the movie really cares most about a more important and more complicated relationship: that between Neff and his boss (and best friend) Keyes.

WORKING TITLES (Movies named after a business or a job)

My Beautiful Launderette

Alice's Restaurant

Car Wash


Taxi Driver


Mystic Pizza


Cameron Crowe's "Say Anything" contains the speech that many slackers still live by as their professional credo. When his girlfriend's father asks Lloyd Dobler, "What are your plans for the future?, John Cusack's character replies:

"You mean like career? Uh, I don't know. I've, I've thought about this quite a bit sir, and I'd have to say considering what's waiting out there for me, I don't want to sell anything, buy anything or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or... process anything sold, bought or processed, or repair anything sold, bought or processed, you know, as a career I don't want to do that."



Small time producer Bowfinger, played by Steve Martin, who dreams of hitting the big time, expresses his vision the following way:

"You see that Federal Express truck? Every day it delivers important papers all over the world. And one day, it will stop here and a man is going to walk up and casually toss a couple "FedExes" on my desk, and at that moment we, and by we I mean me, will be important."


This tired and very run-of-the-mill 90's romantic comedy has one great line that qualifies as a great Fedex moment. When Maggie, a woman who's notorious for fleeing from the altar, makes her exit by leaping onto a FedEx truck, someone asks "Where do you think she's going?" To which a bystander cracks:

"Wherever it is, she'll be there by ten-thirty tomorrow."


The FedEx moment in this film starts at minute one of this movie and lasts...until it ends.


While The Music Man is not ostensibly about business, this movie speaks directly to the power of charismatic entrepreneurs. Professor Harold Hill is Steve Jobs, a man whose charm and energy thrill a community of followers who enlist so loyally to his vision that it materializes. The sheer force of his vision, his mission, his "think" system (do you think it's a coincidence that the motto of Tom Watson, one of this century's greatest entrepreneurs, was "Think,") not merely energizes the troops, it literally brings the vision to life. And even he, a man who can't read a note, ends up leading the band.

(This article appeared in MyBusiness magazine)

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