“Out here, it is all about our hustle.”
These words are spoken in the opening scene of “Tangerine.” The story of two transgender street-level sex workers, the film remains keenly aware of the importance of work and money. In that scene, the two share a single doughnut because that’s all they can afford.
But far too often in American movies, work life is reduced to some ill-defined environment from which long lunch breaks or afternoons off can be taken. How often have you left a film and wondered, “What exactly did they do at that office?”
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And yet there are movies — besides “Tangerine,” the recent “Magic Mike XXL” and “Results” come to mind — that do place work at the forefront of their dramatic interest and intent.
Work and money and where it puts you in the world are the secret subjects of lots of pictures that might more forthrightly be about something else. In the animated film “Inside Out,” the portrayal of the emotional infrastructure of a little girl is visualized as a series of individualized workspaces. “Jurassic World” depicts Bryce Dallas Howard’s character as an executive overseeing a business where marauding genetically enhanced dinosaurs might be thought of as disgruntled employees.
“Trainwreck,” directed by Judd Apatow and written by its star, Amy Schumer, is a fresh, invigorating spin on the romantic comedy. However, in “Trainwreck,” just as in last year’s “Top Five,” written and directed by Chris Rock, a female journalist is depicted as becoming romantically involved with an interview subject. (I am fairly certain this sort of thing could get them fired.)
Those two films in particular have enough going for them to just about get away with any cheats of convenience regarding the realities of their workplace dynamics. Such shortcuts would never be found in the work of Michael Mann, who more than almost any other filmmaker has long depicted his characters as defined by their work. From his feature debut, “Thief,” to his recent enigmatic hacker-age thriller, “Blackhat,” his storytelling has been deeply rooted in the authenticity of the characters’ professions.
For many people, and I will include myself under this heading, work determines much of our sense of self, whether wanted or not. Yet it is one of the great strengths of “Tangerine” that it pushes viewers past the typically superficial depictions of street life and sex work to find the more universal themes of friendship, identity and survival. The lead characters of Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) become defined by their emotions and humanity beyond what they may be doing to pick up money here or there.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘What were Sin-Dee and Alexandra doing out there?’” Taylor said recently. “If you see people out there doing whatever they’re doing, they’re out there for a reason.”
“Tangerine” is set on the streets of Hollywood, the real, physical place, yet it depicts an emotional and economic reality that the products of Hollywood, the dreamscape fantasy factory, can often barely conceive of.
Long one of the best at bridging that divide is Steven Soderbergh. In films such as “Traffic,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Bubble,” “Che,” “The Girlfriend Experience,” “The Informant!” and even the trilogy of “Ocean’s” heist pictures, he has paid attention to the importance of work creating a sense of self and defining the borders of one’s life.
In “Magic Mike,” directed, edited and shot by Soderbergh, the lead character is trying to get out of being a male stripper, itself a form of sex work, and the hard-partying lifestyle that goes with it. At the beginning of “Magic Mike XXL,” directed by Gregory Jacobs, with Soderbergh acting as editor and cinematographer under pseudonyms, Mike (Channing Tatum) has indeed been away from stripping for three years and owns his own business making custom furniture.
But he is struggling, as he is shown alone late at night in front of a computer, papers splayed out in front of him where there used to be adoring female fans. The quiet attention to detail in the films is part of what makes them work as well as they do; as an aside, Mike wants to but can’t afford to cover his lone employee’s healthcare.
One night, when he is alone in his workshop, on the radio comes the song “Pony,” performed by Gunuwine, which was the tune to Mike’s signature dance, and suddenly, he is a dervish of motion, sliding across the desk, gliding across the floor with a stool and salaciously sending sparks flying by pumping a piece of metal against a grinder or working a power drill. He obviously misses something about his former life.
For the Record
July 27, 1:22 p.m.: This article misspells the name of “Pony” singer Ginuwine as Gunuwine.
So Mike goes back for one last ride, a road trip with some of his old troupe to a stripper convention after which they all plan to go their separate ways to lives of more legit work. Along the way, they decide they can’t do the clichéd routines of fireman and the like anymore. Rather, they will each perform as the thing they really want to be — Mike isn’t the only one with a side hustle. One wants to be a painter, another a legit actor and performer, another to run an artisanal frozen yogurt truck. And like the Judd Hirsch character on the television show “Taxi,” the cabbie who just wanted to drive a cab and nothing more, one of them truly aspires to be a male entertainer.
In the film’s finale — spoiler alert — the members of the troupe perform routines based on those real aspirations. Mike, for his part, does a mirror act with another performer that could be seen as acting, make that dancing, out his inner conflict — to strip or not to strip.
“Results,” written and directed by Andrew Bujalski, had something of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical run in Los Angeles this year but is available on VOD. In the film, Kevin Corrigan plays Danny, who inherits an unexpected fortune and then doesn’t know how to behave rich. He becomes entwined with Trevor (Guy Pearce), who owns a gym, and one of Trevor’s employees, Kat (Cobie Smulders), a personal trainer.
Trevor looks to expand his business, so Danny invests, but then sells his stake well below value to Kat as a means of bringing her and Trevor together at last. The movie has an uncanny, acute sense of money as both creator, amplifier and sometime solution to many of life’s problems.
Bujalski has a particular sensitivity to money in his movies, what it can do and what it can undo. He has teasingly referred to his 2009 film “Beeswax” as a legal thriller, but its plot does hinge on whether one partner in a small business is going to sue the other and the financial and personal fallouts that could bring.
This year Bujalski noted that he was happy to have recently seen Robert Bresson’s 1983 film “L’Argent,” a movie he had long wanted catch up to in part because the title translates simply as “Money.”
“I thought every movie should be called ‘L’Argent.’ That’s so much of what you’re seeing on-screen,” Bujalski noted.
“I guess it’s how my brain is wired. I’m not a terribly political person necessarily, but I can’t help but see it in front of my face every day, all the time, and see capitalism in action. So much of our interactions in this culture and on this planet are driven by it. So it’s a part of every story, of course.”
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