Good movies in bad times

It must be the worst case of bad movie timing since John Dillinger decided to take in the late show at the Biograph.

“Confessions of a Shopaholic” is meant to be a cherub’s arrow aimed at the heart of the rom-com Valentine’s Day box office. It actually opens on Friday the 13th, and it could frighten the heart out of you instead.

In this film, platinum -- as in the card -- is a girl’s best friend. In the carefree years when this film idea was born, credit cards flew in through our mail slots like enchanted tokens to a paradise of retail delights.

Now we’ll watch “Shopaholic” as a horror film. It’s a 21st century “Lost Weekend,” in which the heroine, a putative financial journalist, would hock her laptop to buy a pair of red suede Gucci boots. In years to come, mothers can show it to their teenage daughters the way you’d show kids gory driver’s ed films: See this? Don’t let this be you.


The film adds a voice-over moralizing about the pitfalls of debt, but put up against the alluring enticements of a Barney’s sale, that warning is about as flimsy as a $500 La Perla nightie. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer is undaunted. He told my colleague Claudia Eller that “the timing for this movie couldn’t be better. This is the journey of a young girl who has a problem, and she turns her life around.” By falling for her rich editor? Yep, that’s exactly what they tell you to do at debt counseling.

To find out what Hollywood was putting on the screen in the last economic crash, I sought out Jeanine Basinger, the smartest movie person I know, and not least because she chooses to teach 3,000 miles away from Hollywood, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

Right off, she said screwball comedies. There was a kind of class warfare in those films, but it cleverly defused social anger by letting the poor multitudes mock the gazillionaires. Those movies “did reassure people by saying, ‘You know, rich people are idiots ... and by the way, they’re not happy. ... But you people, who have no money -- you can be happy.’ ” For the price of a movie ticket.

Oh, those ridiculous rich. Watching 1930s screwball comedies is like visiting a zoo full of millionaires. Spoiled, clueless heroine Claudette Colbert, in “It Happened One Night” (1934), can’t negotiate a bus schedule, much less master the art of dunking a proletarian doughnut. In “My Man Godfrey” (1936), the featherbrained heiress follows a treasure hunt to the city dump to retrieve a human trophy, the “forgotten man,” who outclasses her entire family. And in the more sinister “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936), a small-town innocent who inherits a fortune tries to spend it to help the poor. For his trouble, a slavering wolf pack of rich lawyers tries to get him locked in the loony bin.


You still find a lot of the Depression in Depression-era comedies, Basinger pointed out. Trains passed through scenes loaded with hobos. Decent people who couldn’t find work, or even a meal, showed up as lesser, sober plot devices.

The Oscar 2009 nominees were on their way to the multiplex well before the economy crashed in earnest. What could the Oscars 2010 look like? Will anything in the pipeline take hard times into account?

Here’s Basinger again: “People are ready to hate the CEOs. ... People are really ready to see movies in which business tycoons with giant salaries get taken down.”

So maybe a Bernie Madoff-type will get a comic comeuppance at the hands of his doorman’s kid, after his dad lost his savings by trusting his tenant’s advice.


Gangster films? Definitely, Basinger said. Mobsters “may not give it to the poor, but at least they rob the rich.” By summer, we’ll be seeing Johnny Depp’s “Dillinger.”

But I haven’t yet heard of anything resembling another Basinger candidate -- an amusing, romantic, escapist film. Can it really let us escape far enough? Moviemaking isn’t as nimble as it was in the days of the studio system, when Hollywood could whip a movie off the soundstage and into the theater in weeks. Reflecting the culture and the mood takes longer now.

So “Shopaholic” heads toward the movie audience minefield. The answer to Basinger’s question -- “Will people find that girl charming and funny, or will they really be annoyed and not want to see it?” -- could mean that movies being planned get shelved and that others get shoved to the front of the production line.

Or maybe I’m wrong and “Shopaholic” is the stimulus package this nation needs. One blogger is ready to shop: “Just wondering if anyone knows who the necklace is by? Or where it is from? ... I absolutely love it!” And there’s a “Shopaholic” Facebook app you can use to send “boutique items” and a purchase link to friends with the message “Buy me this, kthx.” A girl’s still gotta dress, doesn’t she?