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'Reality Bites'

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I recently saw this movie. It's a somewhat silly comedy about three women who bond over their mutual hatred of a truly hateful man. One of the women is a milquetoast from a troubled marriage. She is befriended by a smart and savvy professional type. And then, it being a Hollywood movie, there is a blonde with breasts.

It is not a great movie, but it's not too bad. At least the three women don't spend every waking moment obsessing over men and their love lives. Maybe that's because the movie was made in 1980. Nine to Five, about three working girls struggling to get over on a boss from hell, was a monster hit back then, the second highest grosser of the year. The 2014 version, The Other Woman, which is virtually identical in its broadest strokes, has opened quite well. It has a huge ad campaign, and a very winning performance from Leslie Mann. And it has Kate Upton. And lots of fart jokes. Now that I think about it, it's really a license to print money.

As entertainment, Nine to Five and The Other Woman aren't all that different. I prefer Nine to Five, but that has a lot to do Dabney Coleman's villain and Dolly Parton's catchy title tune. I would have watched a sitcom back then called Dabney and Dolly had one existed. Critics have pointed out that the 2014 version is somewhat of an anti-feminist farce masquerading as a paean to female liberation. That's because the women all obsess over the man. If you're not familiar with the Bechdel Test, wiki it and consider how The Other Woman fares.

It's true that the way in which the three women in The Other Woman dwell obsessively on a dirtbag can seem a little silly. But I have to admit, I didn't find that particularly objectionable. Maybe it's because I'm a guy. Maybe it's because I have heard more than one smart woman indulge in similar obsession throughout a good part of my adult life. But I think it's because I was dwelling on another aspect of the screenplay -- one which I found much more disturbing.

All the men in the movie are rich. Really rich. The bad guy, to whom the Leslie Mann character is married, is rich, albeit shady. Leslie Mann happens to have a brother, a good looking contractor with a beard, who also happens to own a fabulous beach house which he is totally re-doing. The contractor business is obviously booming. This guy will pair off with Cameron Diaz's character. Cameron Diaz's character has a Dad who is, for no apparent reason, bodaciously rich -- and looks a lot like Don Johnson. He'll pair up with Upton and her bikini. There's one other guy of note in the movie, who will end up hiring Mann's newly divorced character Kate, and he is ... wait for it ... stinking rich.

Hollywood has been here before. During the Great Depression, the movie screens sparkled with Nick and Nora, and Fred and Ginger, all leading their glamorous lives without giving much of a thought to the WPA or the CCC. Audiences didn't seem to mind. The common explanation is that movies provide an escape from the real world. And I'm all for escapism.

But it worries me that we seem to be shifting further and further away from any semblance of reality as each year goes by. Nine to Five provided escapism. Each of its women got a chance to fantasize over how she would take down her abusive boss. But, even in its comic context, the women were dealing with real world problems of sexual harassment, glass ceilings, and the plight of the middle-aged divorcee. By contrast, The Other Woman barely exists in any world I know, where everyone appears to have a beach house and the ability to jet off to the Bahamas at a moment's notice. It's just a bunch of rich people crying in their Bollinger.

This is part of a broader trend in American film. Take a quick look at last year's box office champs. Out of the top fifteen movies, thirteen of them were either sci-fi/fantasy or animated cartoons. The only two that were outside those categories were Fast & Furious 6 (at 9) and The Heat (at 15). Compare that to 1980, the year Nine to Five came out. A fantasy film, The Empire Strikes Back was the runaway number 1, but after that, only two other movies (Popeye, at number 12, and The Shining at number 14) were fantasy or animated. Most of the others were silly comedies which had no particular social significance, but they were at least grounded in reality. (OK -- Airplane! is debatable, but it is absurdist, which I think is a bit different from outright fantasy.)

I understand that some fantasy films and some animated films can speak truths better than realistically grounded stories. I don't mean to condemn them as frivolous. But we live in an age when income inequality is approaching record-setting levels. When our educational standing continues to plummet. When climate change is already destroying habitat and species. We know these things. And as a culture, we seem powerless to do anything about any of them.

Is there a correlation between our ever increasing willingness to turn away from real problems and turn toward increasingly spectacular fantasy on our movie screens? I sure hope not. That might signal a bread and circus end to civilization as we know it and ... oh wait, out my window, I see an extraordinarily attractive person headed my way, pockets bulging with cash and a bottle of Bollinger just waiting to be cried in.