All of the above movies have something in common: I saw them on HBO. Our cable company mistakenly gave us the channel free for a decade when I was a kid, and so I watched a lot of movies. At least, a lot of some movies. In the eighties, especially the early eighties, HBO had a pretty small film library. Looking back on it now, it seems like there were times they only had about four movies on tap and made up for that deficiency by running them *into the ground.* Between sicknesses and snow days, there were weeks where it seems like I watched nothing but THE BEASTMASTER and THREE AMIGOS.
I only had one memory of HOW TO BEAT THE HIGH COST OF LIVING, and there was only one reason I remembered the film at all: BOOBIES. It’s a PG movie, so HBO played it in daylight hours, but breasts are bared in one scene, and I think that may have been the first topless shot I ever saw in a movie. Ah, days of innocence. Needless to say, that scene was all I remembered about the movie –including the title. Fortunately, the internet makes it pretty easy to find movies from vague recollections, especially when the scene you recall has some unusual elements. And the scene in question did: a shopping mall has a promotion involving a big plastic ball filled with money that blows around in clouds, courtesy of air hoses. Three women have hatched a plan to steal the money, and two of them cut into the ball from underneath to vacuum out the cash. To cause a distraction, the third gets the attention of the crowd and uses a complaint about inflation as the springboard for a striptease: “It’s taking the clothes off our backs! This is what we’re wearing now, but – [pulls off jacket] -- this is what we’re wearing in 1981! – [crowd cheers] – and *this* is what we’ll be wearing in 1982!” and so on. Eventually, she loses her bra, making a mark on young David that endures. Then the money ball is accidentally smashed, and the audience goes crazy grabbing for the cash. Except for one old man, who stays in his seat, smiling and waiting patiently for the next year.
The neighbor kid and I found this scene hilarious. And I still remembered it, and us laughing about it then, twenty-five years later. At some point in the past year or so, I ran across enough of a plot description online to identify the movie. Then I saw the DVD on Amazon. And thought, “What the heck.”
So I watched the flick. And it’s actually interesting. It’s okay as a comedy, but as an anthropological document, it’s fascinating. HOW TO BEAT THE HIGH COST OF LIVING shows another time and another kind of filmmaking, in every aspect from its storyline to the dilemmas faced by its characters.
As an opening radio news story about makes clear, the film is set in the days of stagflation and President Carter. The world is a very different one. Working women are still a little unusual. Jessica Lange works in an unprofitable antique shop her husband set up for her as a vanity project; the other two are divorced or in the midst of it and don’t work as I recall. Of the divorced women, Susan Saint James, who gets first billing but serves as more of a third lead, lives with her boyfriend (Fred Willard!), whom she hasn’t told her kids she plans to marry; while Jane Curtin is recently abandoned by her husband, and her assets are either tied up or absconded with. All of the women are squeezed for money, because stagflation is on, and prices are going up, and up, and up. The effect of this on the characters is shown in a number of simple, effective scenes: in one particularly good bit, one of the women goes grocery shopping only to have a clerk comes in with a labeler and stamp new, higher prices on everything, *including the steak in her hand.* In another scene, she takes her kids on a preliminary heist, because she can’t afford a babysitter. The cash-strapped Jane Curtin has a yard sale.
If you think about it, this is very different kind of premise from today’s comedies. When’s the last time you saw a movie where people actually worried about money? For another, when’s the last time you saw a comedy that wasn’t a boy-meets-girl romance? Don’t get me wrong; each of the women has a romantic subplot, but they’re minor parts of the film; the flick chiefly revolves around the womens’ financial struggles and their planning of the heist as a means to escape said problems, and none of the men are involved in the heist at all. The movie passes the Bechdel test (“A movie has a) at least two women b) who talk to each other c) about something other than a man” better than anything I’ve seen recently, but for my money the most remarkable thing is the way the movie reflects life in hard times, and show what it’s like to live in its settings. Movies don’t do that much any more. (One recent exception that comes to mind is NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, which makes you really feel the characters' lives and the setting in which they go about them.)
I found something else about the film especially interesting: it’s not strident at all. Modern films that touch on politics tend to beat you to death with their snide condemnation of their chosen Dire Enemy – remember Aaron Sorkin’s holier-than-thou THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT? By contrast, HOW TO BEAT THE HIGH COST OF LIVING isn’t an satirical attack on Jimmy Carter or his policies so much as it is a comedy about what it was like to live that time. You couldn’t get a satire like this made today; it’s not harsh enough. But it works beautifully, and it makes it a lot easier to relate to the characters, because what you think of the Carter years doesn’t color what you think of them; instead, you find yourself relating to them. Which is what sells a movie. For me, anyway.
I don’t mean to oversell the flick. It’s not a great movie, but it’s decent and it’s surprisingly well-crafted. There are stutters and stumbles, but all in all it’s well worth it. I really enjoyed it, and didn’t fast-forward to solve the mystery. Mystery? you ask. Well, yes. It had been so long since I’d seen it that, while I remembered the striptease, I couldn’t recall which of the women had actually done it. (It was Jane Curtin. Or, to be precise, her body double.) But definitely an interesting viewing; check it out sometime.