Friday, 5 January 2007

Film: Work Hard Play Hard

Lowdown: It's survival of the fittest with our economy. But at what personal price?
The French film Work Hard Play Hard is a bit of a problem for me. On one hand it's not the product of superior film making artistry; on the other it's one of those rare films with which I identify from toe to head.
The film starts by following Philippe, a recent graduate now turned consultant in a big global company at La Defance in Paris. At his heart, Philippe is a compassionate person: he helps a lady in distress in the Metro. Quickly enough, they fall in love with one another and have passionate sex together (the way one tends to have in a French film).
Philippe is assigned to work on a project in a factory somewhere in the middle of nowhere, France. The owner seeks out to sell the business and rip the rewards, so Philippe's company is hired to ensure the company is set to get the maximum price from its potential buyer. Naturally, the employees don't know what truly is taking place around them; they are told that the consultants are coming in to improve the efficiency and guarantee the company's future.
As Philippe becomes involved in the project, the film expands its scope and shows us glimpses of the various characters in the factory: from top management to the various production line employees. We get to know the single mother who just can't work weekends, the disabled employee that still receives the opportunity to work, the old guy who worked for the company for 40 years... even the big hearted Arab immigrant company cafeteria cook, who does his best to support his sister and her lackluster husband and dreams of saving enough money to open a restaurant of his own.
And as Philippe gets deeper into the project, he gets torn between his identification with the characters that he knows are going to lose their jobs and between doing his job, which represents his entry ticket to a world of status he worked so hard to get into. His torment causes trouble in his relationship, trouble with his boss, and trouble with the people at the factory. Which side is going to win?
The film is very interesting and touching, and as I said - I've identified with it. Unlike Made in America films dealing with similar concepts, such as Fun with Dick and Jane, it is not a film where everybody's problems are solved at the end and where a giant rainbow covers the screen at the end; it is a much more realistic take. However, as good as it is, it does present things in a rather too much of an in your face way; it makes the message clear, but it also takes away a significant bit of the fun out of watching a film. The way it is, the film borders on propaganda.
Overall, the film is all about a very simple question. Our economy is based on constant expansion and constant efficiency improvements, achieved through a Darwinian like process of competition - basically, survival of the fittest between companies. The film shows us the personal toll this system charges us with: it's not only the people who get to lose their job and those who will have a hard time getting replacement ones; it's also the people on the winning side that lose their morality and their humanity, as well as their family life, in the process of devoting themselves to winning the survival battle.
My personal views on the matter are no big secret, and they are the reason why I identify with the film so much. I was a capitalist myself until relatively not that long ago, and if you were to ask me about my opinion on the unemployed I would have told you that it's their fault for not getting a proper degree and for breeding like rabbits. Things changed, slightly, when many of my friends lost their jobs in the IT slump of 2000-2001; things changed all around when I was unemployed myself for 5 months upon arriving to Australia and had to rely on personal favors within the Israeli community in Melbourne to get myself a job. Basically, I got to learn the hard way that sometimes things are not within one's reach; sometimes, it's not that bad for society to lend its hand to one of its troubled members.
It's not only that. There is also the question of work/life balance, or, to put it differently - what are we working for? Are we living for work or working for a living? In Israel it was mostly the former for me; true, I earned lots of money and had company cars and restaurant lunches all around, but I did not have life in the sense that I have now. Now I earn much less, my status at work is significantly lower, but I also work much less and my job is relatively secure - helping me to live a relaxed life and enjoy my relationship with my wife. That said, I still have to fight off the occasional taunt from family and friends when they wonder aloud why I don't aspire for superior financial success.
At the country level, the film is all so relevant in contemporary Australia, with the Howard government's Industrial Relations legislation making the richer that much more powerful in their relationships with their employees. The film exposes the contradiction in conservative policies, which on one hand call for economic liberalism while on the other they call us to go back to good old family values - while failing to notice the contradiction between these calls.
To sum it up, I will quote from Richard Dawkins yet again. Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist by profession, will tell you that there is no doubt in his mind about the validity of basic Darwinian model of evolution. Yet, as much as the model is valid, it doesn't mean he needs to like it; in fact, as a humanitarian, he stands for everything that contradicts the concept of survival of the fittest in the values department. I concur.
Best scenes: There are two and I can't decide between them.
In the first, Philippe's boss talks to his wife on his mobile, telling her he won't be able to make it home before 10 (pm); in his next sentence he tells Philippe that his family - his wife and child - always come first.
The other best scene is Philippe's company gathering at the end of the film, where the big boss preaches his capitalist agenda to his employees while justifying it using scientific like explanations - arguments not much better than the Nazi master race theories. At the end of his speech, he asks everybody to chant the mantra "work hard play hard" in a scene that reminded me most of Steve Ballmer's famous speeches at Microsoft gatherings.
Overall: I'm a bit torn here. As a film, Work Hard Play Hard qualifies for something between 3 to 3.5 stars; however, the identification element causes me to be quite emotional about it. So allow me to go with my emotions: 4 stars.

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