Monday, September 12, 2016

'Equity' - Finally a Movie that Lets Women Really Really Like Money


Money and I have always had a bit of a tense relationship. Maybe it's because I've never had very much of it. Maybe it's because I've never known quite what to do with it when I did have it. Maybe because I've spent so long being slowly crushed under the heels of people who do have it that I've grown to resent it and distrust its presence in my life.

However you look at it, I'm not great at money.

Oh sure I can save and balance my checkbook and budget and live below my means and get by on even a startlingly low income, but I'm not great at money in a larger sense. It makes me uncomfortable. The first time I got a paycheck for more than a thousand dollars, I held it so tightly in my hand that it crumpled and the bank teller could barely read it. I'm not comfortable around money and I'm old school New England enough to not really like talking about it, and Wall Street baffles and enrages me, so suffice to say that when a friend begged me to watch the new movie Equity because she was sure I would love it, I was skeptical. Deeply, deeply skeptical.

The reason for that is this is a movie whose relationship with money is pretty antithetical to mine. It loves money. It enjoys money. The movie itself feels rich (even if it was made for an impressively low budget). It appreciates money and what it can buy. It likes seeing the dollar signs tick upwards and it doesn't feel bad about wanting to get its profit reports right away. 

This is a movie that is not at all like me and my feeling of deep shame when I want to sneak a peek at my paystub during my lunch break on payday. This is a movie that has rubbed two hundreds together and smelled them just because it could.

Okay. Sorry. Getting kind of creepy here. But you know what I mean.

Equity is a new feature film that's slowly coming into wide release this fall, a film all about what it means to be a woman on Wall Street. I mean, it's not really explicitly about that, there are other plot points here, but that's the main thrust. This is a movie about three women, all of whom lead completely different and independently complex lives, butting heads, teaming up, and tearing each other down all over money. And it's great.

I really mean that. Whatever my discomfort with the subject matter going in, by the end of the movie I was a complete convert to this story. It's a fantastic script, the shooting is beautiful, the acting is superb, and it deserves lots and lots of awards, if for no other reason that it got me to care really deeply about the stock market for two hours.

The movie, which was written by women (Amy Fox, Sarah Megan Thomas, and Alysia Reiner), directed by a woman (Meera Menon), and stars women (Anna Gunn, Sarah Megan Thomas, and Alysia Reiner), is technically about how the lives of three women intersect over one particular tech company going public with their IPO. Don't ask me for more technical details than that, because I retained nothing of the actual mechanics of it, but that's the basic setup.

The three women are all powerful and complicated in their own special ways. Central to the story, and really our hero all throughout, is Naomi (Gunn), a middleaged Wall Streeter who's had to watch promotion after promotion pass her by because it "wasn't her time". 

Deciding that it damn well better be her time now, she aggressively pursues the account to bring tech company Cachet public, figuring that if she can open it high, make a lot of money, and be seen as a "rainmaker" by the executive board, she might finally get the place in the sun she's been after.

Right behind her, though, is her VP, Erin (Thomas), a hypercompetitive gogetter* who keeps pushing at Naomi to give her the raise and promotion she admittedly does deserve. She's frustrated with Naomi for not going to bat with her, and yet a bit sympathetic to how Naomi is constantly criticized for being to brash and not nice or fun. Erin's wild ambition comes to an impasse, however, when she discovers she's pregnant and has to figure out how to deal with having a baby she very much wants with the husband she very much loves...without giving up the job she also loves or showing any weakness in an industry famous for punishing women who dare to have lives outside the office.

And then there's Sam (Reiner), the go for broke federal prosecutor bound and determined to figure out who at Naomi's company is leaking insider information. Sam and Naomi know each other from way back (they were friends in college), but Sam has changed a lot since then. She's both more ruthless and less. She's married and happily settled with her wife (Tracie Thoms) and their two kids, but she's also the single most conniving and ethically loose one of them all, willing to cut any corner or toe any line if it means proving that one of these finance people broke the law.

As you might expect, these three women and this public opening make for a pretty intense story.

The story goes roughly like this: Naomi needs a big win if she's going to convince the board that she's worth bringing to the big kids' table. She decides to make her next win a public offering from Cachet, a sexy internet startup that's all about cybersecurity and being an "unhackable" social network. Erin is along for the ride while Naomi talks her way into being project lead, but as Naomi falters in getting her message across to Ed (Samuel Roukin), Cachet's Silicon Valley bro of a CEO, Erin takes the lead and becomes Ed's preferred handler, a blow for Naomi's credibility at work.

Meanwhile, Sam is convinced that someone at Naomi's company is passing on insider trading to a hedge fund manager, and she's pretty dang sure it's Michael (James Purefoy), Naomi's boyfriend. So she goes after Naomi to wheedle information out of her, then proceeds to tilt full speed at Naomi and the public offering like Don Quixote at a windmill, convinced that she's finally going to be the one to take these guys down.

Naomi doesn't appreciate Sam's aggressive investigation or Erin's subtle coopting of her client, but she's more concerned with her growing fears that Cachet is not as secure as it claims. A source in the company tells her that Cachet actually can be and has been hacked, which is instant death for an internet startup selling itself as the only secure social network. Only her career is riding on this. And Michael actually might be selling inside information after all. So, no pressure.

The movie is a tightly told web of perspectives and angles, all centered on these three women. But thematically speaking, it's all about how these particular women relate to money. Naomi openly admits how much she likes it. In fact, she gives a character defining speech about how much she loves money only minutes into the movie. 

She's a woman who grew up poor, who struggled her way through college, and who initially took a job on Wall Street to take care of her family. But she's also a woman who likes having her own money, who never married because, as she puts it, men don't like women who buy their own diamonds. She likes money, finds it comforting and safe, and loves to see the numbers climb higher when she does her job right.

For Erin, money means winning. The more money, the more she's winning, and Erin is a woman who really likes to win. There's an adorable and also terrifying moment early in the film when Erin gets up early to catch a flight to a pitch with Naomi, and her husband (Nick Gehlfuss) jokingly says that he'd hate to have to compete against her for anything. Erin, without missing a beat, snaps back with, "Because you'd lose." Stone cold and completely sure of herself. Yes, it's a cute moment, but it's also a little scary because we see who Erin really is. She hates losing. She won't lose. No matter what. And for her, money is winning.

Then again we have Sam, a woman who made her life outside the corporate world, working as a lawyer prosecuting bad guys. She jokes that she's a cautionary tale to young professionals, a walking warning that you can go to law school and still wind up poor. Granted, she's not really poor so much as she's not rich. But you can see the strain of money on Sam's life and on her choices. 

As much as she believes in fighting the good fight and taking these guys down, she also has a family to provide for. Her wife works at a nonprofit and kids aren't cheap. Twins are even less cheap. Sam's relationship to money is complex, as well it should be. She hates what it does to people but she desperately wishes she had some. I get that, I really do.

So yes. Equity is a movie about women and how they feel about money and it's a movie that finally allows women to really really like money without punishing them for it. That's a big step forward, when you think about it. A big and important step.

Look, whatever my personal feelings about money and the viability of anarchoMarxism, it's safe to say that the media has not historically been kind to female characters who openly admit to liking money. The majority of "money positive" female characters we've seen have been golddiggers and sex workers and loveless crones. 

Women who like money, we're told, are women who are in some way unnatural. They're bad and immoral and perversions of themselves. Women shouldn't like money, the movies tell us, because women who like money are bad people. The only women allowed to be rich and also good are women who married into it or inherited it, leaving us to understand that only men can accumulate wealth without also accumulating sin.

It's not a great paradigm, is it? So as much as money still makes me uncomfortable, I can't help but see the value in a movie that unapologetically examines the relationships between three very different women and a whole lot of money. I love that they're all morally ambiguous, that none of them is ever really the bad guy or the good guy. 

I love that they're antiheroes not in the boring Walter White sense but in the more complicated sense that none of them fits neatly into any category of hero or villain. And I love that when it all comes down, they're all comfortable admitting to how much they really do like money.

Equity is a very good movie. By any metric by which you can measure a film (screenwriting, cinematography, directing, acting, editing), the movie is fantastic. Which is why it's very interesting to see mainstream critics ignoring and even hating on this film. Why? What issue could they possibly take with it?

Well, I think when it comes down to it, an entire movie about how women can earn huge amounts of money completely independently from men, can tell stories where men are side characters at best, and then can make and finance those stories without any male involvement to speak of**, that movie makes some men uncomfortable.

As well it probably should.

But don't let them put you off. Equity is a good freaking movie. You might hate money, but you should go see this movie anyway. It passes the Bechdel test. It passes the Mako Mori test. Two of its main characters are middleaged women with active and healthy sex lives, one of whom is a lesbian in an interracial marriage. It deals openly with pregnancy politics, the wage gap, and age and sex discrimination at work. 

The only place where it really falters is in the lack of major nonwhite characters (Tracie Thoms is the only character of color with a significant role in the film). This is a good movie with interesting themes and a fantastic script about topics that interest the internet very much. Come on, guys. You know you're all over this.

Fundamentally, though, I don't want you to see the movie because I listed a bunch of progressive talking points it hits. I want you to see it because it's good. It's a good movie that hits those talking points simply because it's trying to accurately represent life as it really is for the women who actually work on Wall Street. And I know this because I got to sit in on a Q&A with executive producer Candy Straight, a Wall Streeter herself, and she said that.

I mean, she said a lot of things, like how interesting it was to shoot low budget and what she thinks happens to Naomi after the film and how important it was to them to have an ambiguous ending and the reason Naomi has a pet fish instead of a dog or something, but among those was the fact that much of this story is based on real things that have happened to real women.

And that's important to remember.

I'm all for movies that challenge our societal structure and the norms of Wall Street and our financial system existing at all, but I also recognize that there is a distinct lack of representation for the status quo as it really is. This is the first movie anyone can really think of, the first mainstream movie at least, that is entirely about women on Wall Street. And if you think back over the big Wall Street movies of the past thirty years, you'll remember with me that the majority of the women in those movies are trophy wives and hookers, so this is a big step forward.

We deserve our own heroes and our own antiheroes. Naomi is a little bit of both, and that's great. Awesome even. We need characters like her if we're going to convince the world of the simple truth that women are not better than men, not more highminded and unconcerned with money, not more inherently moral or good. Women are people just like men are, and some people, it turns out, really really really like money.

It's that simple.

Money might make me uncomfortable, but I want those sunglasses. Like, a lot.
*The dash/hyphen key on my keyboard is broken and it's killing me inside a little. I know this laptop is seven years old, but still. Ouch.

**Equity was produced and funded by a lot of people, men and women, but it was primarily funded, at least in the early stages, by a group of Wall Street women who wanted very much to finally see their stories told on the big screen.

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