SMALL BUSINESS ON THE BIG SCREEN
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
WORKING TITLES (Movies named after a business or a job)
My Beautiful Launderette
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."
THE THREE GREATEST FILM FEDEX MOMENTS (THAT I CAN THINK
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.
BEST ENTREPRENEURIAL PARABLE
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
(This article appeared in MyBusiness magazine)
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