The recent movie Boss Baby (starring Alec Baldwin) has on its cover (for the DVD), “Cookies are for closers.” This was a line I knew I had heard somewhere else, but I couldn’t remember where. I had never really heard of Glengarry Glen Ross (henceforth GGR for sake of ease) as a play, let alone as a movie. But in my research for more anti-work/work-critical movies, I stumbled upon a list that named this as a great film to check out.
There’s a lot to love here and folks who struggle with ascertaining the meaning out of the pointless work they do will find much to relate. The movie concerns four salesmen who are trying to close deals with prospective clients for big money. It’s basically telemarketing but with a bit more money and property involved.
All of them are slimy in their own ways but some are more likable than others.
Al Paciono as Ricky Roma is a tough-talking and fast-talking salesman who knows what he’s doing and is doing well for himself. Jack Lemmon plays Shelly Levene, a man desperate to pay the bills so he can help his daughter, who is in the hospital. Alan Arkin plays George Aaronow, a meek man who likes to go along with (almost) anything he’s told. Lastly, Ed Harris plays a man named Dave Moss, another fast-talking and intense salesman but with ambitions past his job.
All four of these personalities come together in many interesting ways and conversations. They all deal with the stress of their job in different ways. Shelly decides to put out all of the stops to get the sale, Roma plays it cool, Aaronow goes with the first man who asks him if he has a plan and Moss has that plan..
The conversations are almost constantly engaging. By the time the film hits the last 30 minutes I had stopped taking notes on the dialogue and just listened. There’s almost no line in this movie that goes to waste from a character-building perspective. Each character stays grounded in their own dimensions in realistic ways throughout the film.
The stress of having awful bosses, unfair relationships to your work, working a job you hate and being poorly supplied by management (and then blamed for it) are all themes tackled here. The movie makes few qualms that working under people tends to suck and that the most “freedom” you have in that case is to leave. Some freedom.
Meetings are psychological warfare orchestrated in this film by Alec Baldwin (playing a man named Blake).
He yells at the team that “coffee is for closers” and they they’re nothing without a lot of money. Another character says that the job is a man’s identity and thus he’s nowhere if he doesn’t have it. The immediate boss to the four salesmen, John Williamson (played by Kevin Spacey) is a corporate stooge who must say the line (or some variant), “I don’t make the rules, I just enforce them” a half-dozen times before the movie is over.
GGR is based on a play by the same name (though Blake was not originally in it) and it’s easy to tell as the film reaches its final acts that this is the case. All too often in plays misunderstandings arise and people are often out of the loop with information and this comes to a head in the final act. A lot of that misunderstanding generally comes from characters not all communicating with each other or simply being in differing mindsets and never thinking otherwise.
One thing about the film is that it is excellently acted. Al Pacino is perhaps my favorite, especially given his rants about the cops, “bureaucrats of the world” and how he generally treats folks with the same respect they give him. On multiple occasions Pacino’s character demands a cop to give him more time because he’s trying to close a deal.
As a character, Levene is almost too pitiful. Throughout most of the first and second act, you almost can’t help but feel bad for him. But for me it was in the sort of way where it was like, “Go home! Be with your family already, just give up!”
It’s odd to have an experience where an actor is almost too good at what they’re doing. It’s like when Jack Nicholson tries to play someone who is crazy or has anger issues. Nicholson is sometimes almost maddeningly too good for his roles, to the point that the audience may not even be sure whether he’s acting or not.
The film also touches on how much emotional labor you have to do when you’re a salesmen. At my job I feel enough of the time that I have to pretend to be happy. But with salesmen they live and breathe this kind of fake happiness. All smiles and talking happily all of the time and distorting reality just to make the sales they need.
And eventually this leads to worker disgruntlement, as we see in the movie. But it also leads to self-berating behavior where eventually, if you decide to stick around long enough, you’ll internalize these values. And you’ll decide for yourself that not being a closer makes you a bad person in some way. Even if you argued profusely against it earlier.
Then the leads become a sort of “drug” and you just have to have them. You become desperate about it one way or another. Maybe you decide to buckle down and try to do the work, maybe you quit, maybe you get mad and try to get back at the company, but no matter what, it’s all in the service of money. Ultimately, all of the characters in the movie are driven by money and they need if if they feel like they’re going to mean anything.
The rebellion of the workers in this movie isn’t so much the removal of the capitalist work ethic but a way to get to it through unconventional means. Most of the people in this movie ultimately reinforce or reaffirm the sort of capitalist work ethic that is pushed down their throat, but they try different ways to cope or even overcome it, just to reproduce it.
The ending is a bit sudden but it’s sensible and I think the film works very well on the whole. I’d highly recommend it to people who are fed up with their jobs and looking to see how others deal with a similar struggle. It’s probably one of the better movies I’ve watched that tackle the topic of work in a very central way.
Al Paciono said a line in the movie that really hits hard, “You’re going to die regretting the things you didn’t do.”
And though the movie doesn’t say so, work is one of the biggest impediments to do the things we want to do. Maybe it’s time to rethink the capitalist work ethic, instead of reproducing it and replacing our identities with the things we buy and the money that we have or don’t have, we can be good people with or without it.
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