She (Don't) Work Hard for the Money

By Adam Blair

WARNING: Contains plot spoilers for The Upside of Anger

Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s 1965 novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater begins with this short paragraph:

A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees.

Vonnegut’s satirical take on, among other things, the burden of inherited wealth, concerns fabulously rich and hysterically drunken Eliot Rosewater, who, in one of his periodic liquor-fueled escapes from a high society lifestyle that is choking him, addresses a convention of science fiction writers. Rosewater loves science fiction as a kind of pulp prophecy, dealing with the “really big issues” (technology, war, the environment, human cruelty) while ostensibly concerned with bug-eyed monsters and killer robots.

However, Eliot is enough of an aesthete to recognize the genre’s limitations. Vonnegut writes “Eliot told the writers that he wished they would learn more about sex and economics and style, but then he supposed that people dealing with really big issues didn’t have much time for such things.” Then Eliot wonders why there has never been a science fiction book written about money.

Vonnegut is indulging in a bit of a meta-in-joke (he started out as a writer of science fiction-tinged short stories, so Rosewater is his answer to Eliot’s question) but it’s a good point: why don’t more people write about money? Inherited wealth is at least partly to blame for the Bushes, after all. And in a lot of films and television — which have a geometrically greater influence on the body politic than Vonnegut’s novels ever will — there’s often a willed ignorance about money that seems symptomatic of Americans’ ambivalence about the topic.

I’m not talking about films that specifically or even glancingly concern themselves with poor or working-class people trying to make it, nor about Jackie Collins-style celebrations of exactly what money can buy. But there’s a strange little sub-sub genre, the Abandoned Wife Fantasia, that exemplifies an attitude whereby the laws of financial physics are not so much suspended as studiously ignored, to the greater or lesser detriment of the films.

The most recent, and most egregious, example is The Upside of Anger, with Joan Allen and Kevin Costner, a movie that is not without its charms (any performance of Kevin Costner’s that doesn’t make me actively hate him is, by my definition, a good performance). Costner plays Denny Davies, a retired baseball player who drinks too much beer and barely bothers to do the radio show that is ostensibly his main source of income, along with signing baseballs at malls and supermarket openings. He’s what Crash Davis, Costner’s Bull Durham soulful stud, might have become if he had actually made it to “the Show” but had taken a few too many boozy wrong turns since.

Filmmaker Mike Binder’s money blindness about Denny is nothing compared to his about Joan Allen’s character, Terry Wolfmeyer. As the film begins, Terry’s husband (who we never see) has left her. In full movie-midlife-crisis cliché, he has run off with his secretary, who is a Swede from Sweden no less. Terry spends pretty much the whole movie in low, middle and high dudgeon over her abandonment, spewing vodka-flavored invective at everyone within range — her four daughters, the sleazy older boyfriend of one of them (Binder, mustachioed like a young Geraldo Rivera) and Costner’s Denny, who becomes a combination boyfriend and emotional punching bag. It’s a measure of Joan Allen’s acting skills that not only did I not hate her character but that Terry remained interesting throughout (although the movie around her drifted apart).

The money blindness that bugged me both during and after watching Anger has to do with the Wolfmeyers’ lavish upper-middle-class suburban lifestyle, which changes not one teensy-weensy bit after dear old Dad decamps to Scandinavia. Does Joan have to get a job — one that might interfere with her true career, guzzling bottle after bottle of Grey Goose? Does she have to sell some jewelry or take in boarders at their spacious suburban Detroit McMansion? Does her oldest daughter (Alicia Witt) have to drop out of the University of Michigan and go to a community college? Does daughter Keri Russell have to drop out of dance school? Do they even have to switch to a generic brand of dog food? Alert readers will guess the answers without even having seen the film: No, no, no, no and no.

Daughter Erika Christensen does get a job rather than go to college, but it’s her choice to do so — Allen wants all her kids to go to school. Christensen starts out as a production assistant at a radio station, a job whose salary probably covers her gas, car insurance and lunches with pennies to spare.

Now it’s possible Terry is independently wealthy or that she day-traded her way into a fortune during the dot-com boom, but this is never discussed — not even in a throwaway line of dialogue. Late in the film Terry agrees to sell some land behind her house for a subdivision, but she EXPLICITLY says the money is not for her, it’s for her daughters. She might have claimed some severance from her husband’s presumably remunerative job, but it’s made clear early on that he actually lost his job before running off.

And what about the hubby? Isn’t he paying child support if not alimony? It’s the 21st century, he could wire money even from the remotest part of Sweden. No, explicitly no: one of the conceits of Anger is that Terry is so pissed off that, during the three years the film covers, she neither sends nor receives any message of any kind to or from the father of her four children. Not a letter, a voice mail message, an e-mail, a smoke signal. Nothing. Nor does she initiate divorce proceedings.

In another insultingly ludicrous conceit, none of the daughters — who are all in their late teens/early 20s — tries to contact him either, presumably out of loyalty to Abandoned Mom. And it’s not like life stands still while he’s gone: major life events, ones the Dad would presumably have a mild interest in, take place during the course of the film (eldest daughter Witt graduates from college, gets married and has a baby; daughter Russell is hospitalized with a stomach ulcer). Russell specifically asks Allen to let Dad know about her illness, but Mom is too far gone in her own resentment for even this level of civilized behavior. For us to believe the daughters would submit to this nonsense would mean 1) that the Dad was a horrible parent even before leaving; 2) that they are emotional retards who can’t think or act for themselves; or 3) that Allen is not only screaming at them but beating them black and blue to keep them in line.

SPOILER ALERT: SKIP THE FOLLOWING TWO PARAGRAPHS IF YOU WANT TO BE SURPRISED WHEN WATCHING THIS FILM.

Anger’s annoying unbelievability about money gets multiplied by a screenwriter’s trick that to some extent explains the husband’s silence, but in doing so makes Terry’s emotional journey feel cheap. It turns out the hubby did leave, but not to boff Miss Sweden; he shuffled off this mortal coil, falling into a well in the very woods that are being chopped down for the new subdivision. So Terry has been a widow all this time, not a member of the First Wives’ Club. Her stubbornness about having nothing to do with the man who ostensibly left her has prevented her from doing anything that might have hastened the discovery of his body.

In screenwriting terms, this “explains” why Terry never bothers hubby for child support (or even hires a lawyer to do so) — it would have revealed the secret too soon. Binder probably also used this “clever” reversal to add some suspense to the film, which starts at a funeral; we only find out whose it is at the very end, making each medical crisis a source of worry for the audience.

SPOILER OVER, READ ON

But really, this is the kind of twist — one step up from “and then he woke up, it had all been a dream!” — that would get an “F” in a Screenwriting 101 course. It would also have been mocked and rejected by a reasonably confident director, but Binder served as his own director as well as acting in the film. He was apparently too busy being a triple threat to worry about the seams showing, or the fact that some people would walk out of the theater thinking about the trick ending rather than about how anger shapes, and misshapes, all the characters’ lives.

I admit I am being picky about this. One could plausibly argue that Anger is not about who paid the utility bill, it’s about Terry’s anger (it had to come from somewhere even if it turns out that it was misplaced), as well as mother-daughter tensions and Denny’s redemption. And aren’t Hitchcock’s films and movie musicals — both of which I love — full of wild implausibilities?

Yes. But. Unlike a musical, Anger presents its story in a relatively realistic milieu, among the type of people who, in real life, talk about money a fair amount, so the silence is rather deafening. Hitchcock’s relationship to plausibility was more complex: his films reveal psychological truths using other methods than a quasi-realistic examination of upper-middle-class life: James Stewart’s domination of Kim Novak is represented by his obsession about her hairdo, with her submission to him taking place in the eerie green light of her hotel room in Vertigo. And note that Hitchcock has Stewart mention in the first minutes of the movie that he has enough money to be able to spend his days trailing after Novak without worrying about where his next meal is coming from.

Hitchcock’s sometimes cavalier attitude toward “realism” is reflected in his labeling the implausibilities in his movies the “icebox conversation.” If viewers realize the film doesn’t totally make sense it happens at home, while they’re splitting the leftover chicken. (e.g., in North by Northwest, how does Leo G. Carroll get the details of the elaborate plan to fake-shoot Cary Grant at the Mount Rushmore cafeteria to Eva Marie Saint when she’s presumably under close watch by James Mason’s minions? Where does she get the gun with the blanks? Things like that.). But note that Hitchcock at his best made such fast-moving, entertaining films that you only noticed the inconsistencies afterwards. As I’ve indicated, the contortions Binder has to engage in to make Anger play even as well as it does surfaced for me while I was watching the film, and his screenwriting trickery took me out of the story.

I don’t mean to rag on Binder or suggest this film is an isolated case. Television, especially sitcoms, consistently fudges finances. My college roommates and I long ago noted that the apartments people lived in on TV were at least one or two steps up from what they could actually afford: “Kate and Allie” had two divorced single moms sharing a house in Greenwich Village — with a basement, a big downstairs and upstairs bedrooms — that would in actuality rent for several hundred dollars per minute; Paul and Jamie’s “Mad About You” apartment was huge; the “Friends” never seemed to work that hard, nor do the “Desperate Housewives” or their husbands (though in true soap opera fashion, money and the lack thereof is a factor in at least one of the major storylines on that show).

There’s a similar silence about money in a couple of other recent films, Imaginary Heroes and the kinky Secretary (2002), in which Sigourney Weaver and Lesley Ann Warren, respectively, are either metaphorically or literally abandoned by the family breadwinner with no apparent impact on their need to get a job or pawn the family jewels. Imaginary Heroes is such a botch that the money issue is the least of its worries, and Secretary is more concerned with daughter Maggie Gyllenhaal’s dominant/submissive relationship with boss James Spader than the abandoned mother’s finances. In any case, the film is done in a kind of dark fairy-tale style that doesn’t demand scrupulous verisimilitude.

Why am I more willing to forgive Secretary’s willed ignorance than Anger’s? I think I share Vonnegut’s concern that this kind of mass denial about the reality of money is not a healthy aspect of the body politic. In a society that worships success, and that presumably has no institutionalized barriers to achieving it, it seems somehow dirty and shameful to admit you don’t have enough money — even as the media parades all that money can buy in front of our noses, temptingly out of reach. It can be bought on credit, but be careful — if you overextend yourself, bankruptcy is a less attractive option now that Bush has listened to his cronies in the banking and credit card industries.

In all these films, there’s also a denial that divorce is usually a crummier economic deal for the wife than the husband (papering over male filmmakers’ guilt at hiring shark-like divorce lawyers and “forgetting” to send child support checks?). This willed silence is probably even more toxic than the portrayals of the rich, vengeful ex-wife, which can at least be despised or laughed at. The cartoon version was on view in TV’s “Cybill,” in the person of Christine Baranski’s martini-swilling divorcée, seething with contempt as she hissed the name of her never-seen ex-husband, “Dr. Dick,” while gleefully spending money he originally earned.

I’m not saying filmmakers should use a split-screen to show each character’s tax return as they’re being introduced. But filmmakers who think mapping out, or even mentioning, financial realities will take people out of the story have it backwards. If the audience is wondering how in hell the people on screen can afford their lifestyle (a condition often brought on by being charged $3.75 for a “small” soda at the theater’s concession stand), they’re not thinking about the story or the characters. It’s a small thing with big implications.

 

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