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How to Beat the High Cost of Living

My mother thought “How to Beat the High Cost of Living” (1980) was one of the funniest movies she’d ever seen. Having found it unavoidable in my house (cable played it incessantly for a few years), I watched it a few times and, to an 11-year-old, it seemed OK. I even found it somewhat entertaining. But it doesn’t play as well now that I am 52 and experiencing inflation every bit as bad as it was in the late 1970s.

This is one of those minor, forgettable, fluffy movies that came out regularly 40-45 years ago. I can’t imagine it cost more than $1 million to make, and that’s taking into account its big-time female leads – Jessica Lange, Jane Curtain, and Susan Saint James. They truly do not make them like this anymore. While I miss disposable cinema, this isn’t one of the better examples. It’s just a stupid, stupid movie.

It has an interesting enough hook, purporting to explore the titular cost of living through the eyes of three put-upon housewives. That whole idea is put across in the opening-titles animated sequence, which must have been dated by at least five years the day the movie came out. The freaky-deaky animation lends to the overall creepy atmosphere of the entire film, which comes down to this: it’s a so-called “feminist picture,” about three “modern” women, written, produced and directed by men. The fact that its happy ending boils down to all three female leads ending up in bed with their horny male antagonists gives away the whole game. This film doesn’t give a shit about how women deal with rising household expenses, or divorce, or single parenthood, or any-fucking-thing else. It’s just about cheap, sitcom-y laughs.

Curtain, Lange and Saint James (who all give shrill, eyeball-rolling performances) are matched against Richard Benjamin (overbearingly smarmy), Dabney Coleman (perfecting his “9 to 5” persona as the heartless Mr. Hart), and Fred Willard as, well, the kind of nice guy only Fred Willard could play. (Saint James is also given an ex-husband who’s a real douchebag.) These guys all make life difficult for our three heroines, who can’t get a break. Everything from the price of gasoline to beef by the pound is going up, while their income is either snatched away in divorce or due to sheer bad luck.

Lange’s husband, the goofy and ever-horny Benjamin, sues her over back taxes owed in her unprofitable business venture. Saint James is getting screwed over by her ex, who refuses to arbitrarily pay more child support. (That sort of thing is handled by the courts, lady.) And Curtain’s husband takes off with his secretary so suddenly that we never even see the guy; he’s just a voice on an answering machine. (Saves money on casting.)

With these pressures brought to bear, the heroines go around bitching about how the male-dominated world owes them a goddamn favor. In truth, not one of them ever considers GETTING A JOB. Lange comes closest with her “olde antique shoppe,” but neither Saint James nor Curtain seems to work.

My advice for these three idiots: GET A JOB.

Rather than paper the town with applications, they devise a hare-brained scheme to steal money from a giant plastic ball in the local shopping mall. (Sidebar: why is the color scheme of this film a dirty brown? This is one of the most visually unappealing movies I’ve ever watched.) This requires them to commit various other small-change crimes, like sticking up a grocery store (with a plastic gun) and stealing a canoe. Really? Why doesn’t Saint James apply for one of those jobs at the supermarket, rather than risk serious prison time?

Curtain’s role is truly egregious. At one point, she gets drunk and drives, then beats up a cop (Coleman) after daring him to arrest her. (Inexplicably, he doesn’t even write her a ticket.) She suggests becoming a stripper as a solution to their financial problems, and I’m thinking, that’s a legitimate answer! Later in the film, as the “robbery” is going down, Curtain strips for a crowd, putting a little bit too much enjoyment into the act. (“DO YOU WANNA SEE 1982???”) The film cuts away to the most needless shot of a woman’s breasts in any film; all I can say is that the director must have used a nubile teenager for the shot, as there’s no way in hell those breasts were Jane Curtain’s.

The story is as cheap, tawdry and flimsy as the visual style, which reeks of the late 1970s. I doubt even mom would find the antics of these three pathetic women nearly as funny today as she did in 1981, when this film seemed (sadly enough) to have some tenuous connection to reality. It doesn’t in 2022 – not, I guess, that it was ever meant to.