For entertainment journalists who don't pore over Oscar prospects, the beginning of the year is always difficult because there's not a whole lot of interesting news, and not a lot of movies (good ones, anyway) to review or cover. And this week, even the new DVD and Blu-ray releases are pretty underwhelming. But as we explored at the end of 2010, the end of the year and the beginning of a new one has served as the subject – or at least the time frame - of many movies.
And after my girlfriend and I made an impromptu decision to watch 'The Apartment,' an iconic drama which happens to focus on three people finding their way through complicated relationships over the holiday season, Billy Wilder's film seemed perfect for 2011's inaugural edition of "Shelf Life."
The Facts: Released in 1960, Billy Wilder's 'The Apartment' was a follow-up to his spectacularly successful comedy 'Some Like It Hot,' and despite its decidedly darker tone, the film was an immediate box office success, earning $25 million against its $3 million budget. Meanwhile, the film was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture, Best Director for Wilder, Best Adapted Screenplay for Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, Best Art Direction, and Best Editing. Although 'Schindler's List' was primarily in black and white, 'The Apartment' was the last completely b&w film to win Best Picture in Oscar history.
Additionally, the film won acting awards for Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine at the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes, as well as both of those organizations' Best Picture awards. In 1994, the film was inducted into the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress, and in 2007 ranked at #80 on AFI's Top 100 Films list. 'The Apartment' currently enjoys a 91 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: As a portrait of corporate culture in the late 1950s and '60s, 'The Apartment' takes a somewhat relentless and unflinching look at the ambition and casual manipulation of employees by management which seems to have become standard practice among most major companies, for decades to come. Lemmon's character, C.C. Baxter, is to some extent a social climber indulging his bosses' inconvenient whims, but he's also a cog in a giant wheel, and even his bosses to some extent are themselves only slightly larger cogs. And Fred MacMurray, who sits at the top of this food chain, is emblematic of the decadent privilege of corporate empowerment, in terms of his ability (much less impulse) to promote a worker like Lemmon simply because the employee helps him (personally), but as well in the general disregard and lack of consideration he shows both for Lemmon as a person and for MacLaine's character, who is little more than a conquest.
In terms of the relationships, I think the film does a fairly brilliant job creating vivid and authentic personality types, particularly with MacLaine's character, a young woman engaged in a fling with a man she loves too much to make the more prudent decision not to be involved with him since he's married. But Lemmon's well-meaning, put-upon nebbish seems exactly like the kind of person who could find himself caught between a cad of a manager and his spunky, proto- manic pixie dream girl mistress, and of course fall in love with the girl despite (or maybe because of) exactly that feckless love for the wrong man. But overall the film does an incredibly good job creating a believable and relatable world where these characters' relationships are rendered in three dimensions, and not reduced to stereotypes or clichés for the purpose of simplistic melodrama or worse, comedy.
What Doesn't Work:
'The Apartment' brings up an interesting question about movie characters, specifically in terms of how much we are meant or need to idientify with them, and maybe more importantly, how much the film intends us to do so. Although there are certainly more obvious choices in films like, say, 'American Psycho' or 'There Will Be Blood,' Lemmon's character is not flatteringly rendered, and I wonder how much the movie wants us to be purely sympathetic to him, when much of his behavior inspires exasperation. Indeed, almost all of the characters in the film are really unlikeable people who, despite their self-awareness (which is certainly a good thing), do nothing to change their behavior, at least until the very end of the film.
For example, I am inclined to believe that Lemmon's character thinks that he agrees to let the executives at his company use his apartment so that he can move up the corporate ladder and get a better job, but his explanation for how it all began ("I couldn't say no to one if I said yes to another") speaks to a much deeper and more revealing character flaw – namely, that he can't say no to anyone. Not only does he live his life around the schedule of a number of philandering executives, but he basically deflects any and all of his needs for other people without reclaiming or getting anything in return. This in fact may be intentional on the part of Wilder, but no matter how effectively that is rendered, it doesn't make me like him, and it certainly doesn't make me want to watch him. At a certain point, his attempts to be ingratiating just become grating, and you lose sympathy for him because he quite frankly subjects himself to the indignities he suffers far more than others do.
Meanwhile, there's MacLaine's character, who is the most interesting and complex of the main three in the film. I think that she is really, really beautifully created, and MacLaine plays her perfectly. But ultimately, she uses Lemmon's character just as much as MacMurray or any of the other characters, and moreover, her evolving interest in him seems to be born of his niceness and his willingness to take care of her more than actual affection. (The fact that she never corrects her brother-in-law especially before but also after he decks Lemmon is a dealbreaker to me, quite frankly, since he was the one who cared for her and absorbed all of her "other woman" humiliation.) And the film's final line, "shut up and deal," seems to speak to the fact that she clearly does not share Lemmon's shameless puppy-dog love, but simply would rather be around a guy who worships her than one who takes her for granted, neither of which seems like an appealing or legitimate romantic option for an otherwise independent and empowered young woman.
And ultimately, all of these qualities/ interpretations may have been intentional on the part of the filmmakers, in which case they aren't shortcomings but components of a decidedly more complicated and dark portrayal of these characters and their lives. But that doesn't mean that they are necessarily sympathetic or maybe more accurately, that I would want to watch them fumble towards the appearance of affection out of loneliness and despair.
What's The Verdict: 'The Apartment' holds up as a sort of breakthrough for romantic comedies at a time when they were generally fun, frivolous and unsophisticated – a historical benchmark for sure – but as a film that is immediately relevant and resonant to contemporary audiences, it doesn't quite have the same impact that it used to. In other words, it feels like a film to be admired but not loved, mostly because the characters are not especially lovable, and the story is so dark and cynical and unredeeming in so many ways. It actually reminded me of another, more recent and decidedly less appreciated film, 'The Last American Virgin,' but that film has a sort of sucker-punch ending that really seems to reinforce the weaknesses of the characters rather than simply provide them with relief from them. As such, 'The Apartment' is definitely worth renting, but you wouldn't want to live there.