Cinema: Two Out of Five Ain't Bad

A pair of romantic comedies works nicely, while a trio of ambitious dramas misfires

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Directed by Mike Nichols

Screenplay by Kevin Wade

In the steno pool at the brokerage where she works, Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) might catch a male executive's eye for a few priapic seconds. Would she accompany him to his office for some fast dictation? She would not. Tess may chafe at pushing 30, at fetching coffee for dimmer minds with smoother styles, but she will not be used. And now she has a plan. Her new boss is chic Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver), who has it all and wants more. Katharine can flirt suavely with clients -- "I'll buy you a drink. Bottle of Cristal? Two straws?" -- and steal ideas from brainy losers like Tess. Well, if Tess can't beat Katharine, she will become her. While Katharine recovers from a ski injury, Tess dresses in her boss's clothes, coifs herself in "serious hair," drops her voice one take-charge octave. Voila! The Staten Island missy is a Park Avenue Ms.

Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford), a junior exec at another brokerage, is darned impressed. Here is a woman "who dresses like a woman and not like a woman dressed like she thinks a man would dress if he were a woman." Soon he and Tess are partners, hatching a big merger and pretending that a man and a woman can work closely without feeling the crackle of erotic tension. No can do, at least in the business of romantic comedy. Kevin Wade shows this in his smart screenplay, which is full of the atmospheric pressures that allow stars to collide. Director Mike Nichols knows this in his bones. He encourages Weaver to play (brilliantly) an airy shrew. He gives Ford a boyish buoyancy and Griffith the chance to be a grownup mesmerizer. When Tess and Jack kiss, Nichols has Griffith kick one leg back in the old-fashioned signal of innocent lust.

From this moment, you know that Working Girl is a fond anthology of old Hollywood's romantic comedies. The film's plot may parse like All About Eve from the scheming Eve's point of view, but its heart is with every '30s heroine who must conquer class prejudice -- with wit, charm, bravado and a little larceny -- before she can win the nice guy away from the mapcap heiress. At first, Griffith's pudginess and baby-doll voice appear to disqualify her from the company of Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur and other down- to-earth goddesses of the golden age. But as she slims into executive shape, she grows in the role until finally she is captivating enough to be entrusted with a company merger or a big-budget film. Another Katharine (Hepburn) played another Tess (Harding) in a 1942 comedy about a trailblazing career gal. Like her, Griffith's Tess McGill is a Woman of the Year.

Or maybe the Woman of the Future. For Nichols' film is also as modern as the 21st century challenge that faces America. How will the working class be educated to survive and thrive in the computer age? This intoxicating movie has an answer: let her strut her outer-borough wisdom from Wall Street to the Pacific Rim. Watch her fatten portfolios as she melts hearts. With working girls like Tess, America ain't down yet. -- Richard Corliss


Directed by Barry Levinson; Screenplay by Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow

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