The post from which this was excerpted was originally published on Swampflix.com as part of that site’s “Movie of the Month” feature, in which one contributor makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before, and the staff discusses it afterwards. For February 2016, Britnee made me, Brandon, and Erin watch Big Business (1988).
I’m not much of a fan of comedies of error in which the humor relies too heavily on farcical near-misses, and there was a point in this movie where I lost heart as I realized that the film was saving the inevitable serendipitous union of the City and Country Mice for the end of the film. Once I had this epiphany and stopped waiting for the film to get to that point, I found myself enjoying the movie more straightforwardly, and was pleased that the mistaken-identity elements weren’t played for cringe-comedy as much as I had expected. As has been noted, this is a classic Hollywood farce, which really serves to demonstrate to what extent Old Hollywood was still working from a centuries-old storytelling paradigm; this isn’t really an Old Hollywood Farce so much as it is a Old Globe Farce, based on William Shakespeare’s genre-defining Comedy of Errors. In essence, Big Business is a throwback to a time when films were based almost entirely on dramas that were ancient even then, making the film old-fashioned by default, not that this is necessarily a bad thing. My major problem with the film comes from the way that its antiquated nature shows through in the film’s moral.
When viewing the four main characters, only Poor Rose and Rich Sadie seem truly suited for their positions in life, with Rich Rose and Poor Sadie being reasonably well-adjusted but largely unfulfilled. Ignoring the two women who are in their “rightful” lives, Poor Sadie’s desire for a more exciting life than pig wrasslin’ and yodeling can provide evokes more empathy for her than the audience can really muster for Rich Rose, who certainly has the financial means to forsake her supposedly incomplete life for the purported pleasures of rural domesticity. As such, Rich Rose is the character who gets the least characterization, really only developing once Roone shows up in the third act. This would be a fine exploration of the nature/nurture dichotomy, were it not for the fact that, ultimately, Poor Sadie comes to the decision that not only is the way of life in Jupiter Hollow worth preserving, it’s worth praising as well; she forsakes her biological sister’s urban and urbane world to return to performing percussive cow milking alongside toothless men whose musical expertise is limited to playing moonshine jugs, and we, as an audience, are supposed to feel gratified by this conclusion. Rural living is the right fit for everyone, except the shrewish antagonist.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I got plenty of laughs out of Tomlin and Midler’s performances here, and even the potentially painful farce worked for me. I was just hoping for one more twist (for instance, that the Sadies were actually the children of the Ratliffs and that the Roses were the Sheltons’ daughters) that would make the film less overt in its praise for downhome simplicity over metropolitan cynicism. To a man, all of the New York-based characters that are not Rich Rose are foppish, conceited, untrustworthy, manipulative, and greedy, with the implication being that Rose feels unfulfilled because she is genetically predisposed toward “goodness,” being the child of salt-of-the-earth outlanders. But the “goodness” of rural living is enough to almost completely deprogram Poor Sadie, who is tempted by the carnal delights that ensnare and comprise Rich Sadie’s identity and existence but is able to reject them. It just doesn’t sit well with me.
Erin, am I reading too much into this, or allowing my perception of the film to color my enjoyment of it too much? Is there something that mitigates this seeming moral that I may have overlooked? And what do you think about the Old Hollywood elements–do they work?
Read the full discussion on Swampflix.