Monday, June 23, 2008

Monday Movie Review: The Apartment

The Apartment (1960) 10/10
Insurance actuary C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a bachelor who allows managers to use his apartment for their adulterous trysts, hoping that he'll curry favor and earn a promotion. He has a crush on elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), but his ambitions and his relationship hopes may be in conflict. Directed by Billy Wilder.

The worst thing about The Apartment is that it is categorized as a "romantic comedy," and while technically there is both comedy and romance, it is so far from that genre as to confuse the viewer who might be expecting something more along the lines of, I dunno, Notting Hill. The Apartment is best appreciated as a dark story—with comedic moments and a touching romance—about ambition, compromise, and treating people as less than people. More...

The first time I saw it, I had rom-com expectations, and I couldn't get comfortable with the darkness. What is this movie? You want to stick it in a genre, but it doesn't fit. So the second time I saw it, I knew it would be dark, and I let go of even thinking of it as a comedy. Definitely a not-comedy with funny scenes, but it's not sorrow or angst that makes it not-comedy, it's hatefulness, disregard for human decency, and a system working to crush the relative goodness of Baxter and Fran.

Again, when I first saw the movie I thought of Bud Baxter as a nebbish, and again, this is because a nebbishy, put-upon character is a cliché in such movies, and Lemmon's character fits into the slot where such a nebbish would be. I hate those characters in films; I hate cringing, it's one of the reasons I don't watch many comedies.

But I saw a brief summary of the film somewhere that referred to Baxter as "ambitious." Not put-upon, not abused by his higher-ups. "Ambitious." And that made me rethink the film quite a lot. When I saw it again, I saw that Baxter isn't abused by his bosses, although they take advantage of him and treat him like crap, he tolerates it willingly, not because he doesn't know how to say no (nebbish) but because it will help him achieve his goals (ambitious). The minute the abusive managers can no longer help him, Baxter is entirely able to, and in fact delighted to, say no.

Which paints him in a different light, no? He's a decent guy, who cares about people, but he is climbing up the ladder, corporate-wise, and he is okay with compromising himself to do so.

The managers are slimey sons-of-bitches, beautifully portrayed by Ray Walston (whose skull you kind of want to crush), Fred MacMurray (who's more a punch in the face and then stab in the gut sort), and others. MacLaine is a vision, delicate, vulnerable, honest, and Lemmon gives a nuanced performance of a man trying to be true to himself and discovering how complex that can be. Both deserved their Oscar nominations.

There is a lot going on here about American business. Baxter really cares about insurance; he thinks and communicates in actuarial numbers. The higher you go up the management ladder, the less people care, but the product is significant, the numbers are significant. Look at how that changes: By the time of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967), no one in the company knows what their product even is. And yes, How to Succeed... is significantly more comedic, but it's also more cynical. In the seven years between the two films, the notion of a corporate "home" became darker and darker.

The underlying message seems to be that the purpose of rising up the corporate ladder is to crush others, and Baxter has to choose whether or not to be crushed, and whether or not to crush Fran and anyone else who happens to be in the way. What's interesting, and what makes the performance so great, is that you aren't really all that sure what his choice will be, even though he's a lovable guy.

(Cross-posted, blogwise)