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The Associate

(Donald Petrie, USA, 1996)


 


The 1980s saw the rise of what one critic calls the "Tootsie syndrome" in popular cinema – all those films in which a conventionally privileged, white, male, middle class citizen manages to find out how the other half lives for a couple of days by posing as black, female or poor. Movies which stage this scenario the other way around are rarer – and usually far more ironic and biting.

The Associate is a tale of masquerade that deftly places itself between feel-good comedy and corrosive satire. Laurel (Whoopi Goldberg) is a brilliant financial analyst on Wall Street. She seethes as the less talented men in her profession receive the kudos and the promotions for the moves that she has masterminded. So she goes out on her own, hatching a plan to work behind a fictitious male 'associate', a Howard Hughes-type recluse named Robert Cutty.

There is an uncomfortable moment in this scam – uncomfortable for us as for Laurel – when this supposedly subversive scheme seems merely to be reinforcing the same old system of prejudice. Again frustrated, and fending off investigative bloodhounds in all directions, Laurel must take her game to a higher and riskier level, by physically becoming Cutty. By this point, The Associate modestly raises pleasant memories of Preston Sturges' great comedies about political power and deceit (The Great McGinty [1940], Hail the Conquering Hero [1944]).

Beyond some clunky moments of sociological point scoring – when characters sit around babbling about the 'glass ceiling' and gender bias – The Associate is a surprisingly warm and persuasive comedy. Director Donald Petrie demonstrates again the subtle, humanist touch that first brought him notice in Mystic Pizza (1988). And the heart of the movie in many respects is Dianne Wiest's performance as Laurel's true associate, Sally – a canny worker who knows her own worth even if rarely recognised by her 'superiors'.

There are momentary plausibility problems with the plotting of this movie – and particularly with the make-up effects. Laurel in her prosthetic male mask looks more like an alien extra from the set of Babylon 5 than a human being of any discernible gender. Goldberg moves and speaks well inside it, managing to keep the comedy going, but even a character within the fiction is moved to remark on the bizarreness of her get-up: "I thought I was talking to Marlon Brando there for a second!" And he means the Brando of The Island of Dr Moreau (1996), not The Wild One (1953).

MORE Petrie: Miss Congeniality, My Favourite Martian

© Adrian Martin May 1997


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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