How to Beat the High Co$t of Living (1980)

1980 must have been the year for movies starring a trio of women and Dabney Coleman. I don’t know enough about feminism to know if  How to Beat the High Co$t of Living and Nine to Five are feminist films. I’m sure some would like to say these are pro-women or even women empowering films. I’m pretty sure they are not, but honestly, I never can quite tell what passes for a feminist work and what does not.  It seems to shift, a lot.

What I do know both of these movies make me feel down-right sad for the women in each film. In How to Beat the High Co$t of Living Susan Saint James Jane Curtin and Jessica Lange must resort to stealing prize money from a shopping center raffle if they hope to, you guessed it, beat the high cost of living.

Each of their financial woes is the direct result of the men in their life. Susan Saint James is a divorced mom who needs money to not only raise her kids, but more importantly to buy herself some time away from them so she can shag he new beau, Fred Willard. Jane Curtain needs money because her husband just left her and took all their assets with him. Jessical Lange has a man in her life. He’s a successful veterinarian, but he’s just cut off the funds to the unprofitable antique shop she runs. With all this trouble the only logical thing to do is tunnel under the mall and siphon thousands of dollars out of a huge glass orb filled with cash.

I don’t have any trouble with the fact that in both How to Beat the High Co$t of Living and Nine to Five the women resort to illegal measures to solve their problems. These sort of foolish solutions are nothing new to cinema and something we haven’t seen men in numerous movies. It’s just that in How to Beat the High Co$t of Living the women’s motives are less about gaining financial independence and more about co-dependence. The goal of the heist is not just to gain get the money, but to use that money to afford the greatest prize – a man. It’s not the money that completes them it is the man.

The women in How to Beat the High Co$t of Living are all beautiful and full moxie, but they are also sheltered, naive, and just plain lucky. It’s hard for me to tell if these characteristics are simply part of the comedy or a larger view of women. I would not expect that in a comedy of any sort that the heist would go off with out a hitch, but I also found it completely out of character for Jane Curtain’s character to perform an impromptu strip-tease (Curtain uses a body double) to distract the patrons of the mall.

There is ultimately something fun and laughable about this comedy, but its also something personally irksome. Perhaps if I knew that females were creating these projects I’d feel less awkward, but too often I think male creators are projecting an image of women as cute, clumsy, and charmed.

On a totally separate note, I loved the scenes inside the old mall. I once wrote about Scanners and its dark, 70’s era mall scenes. In that write up I said comedies were somewhat exempt from the dark mall look, but How to Beat the High Co$t of Living has those dark mall corridors of my youth. How foreign they must look to today’s youth raised amongst brightly lit malls or open air town centers with their high recognizable franchised establishments.

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