'Tower Heist' and '2 Broke Girls': How the Recession Humbled Hollywood

Movies and TV shows long perpetuated the myth that the American dream means earning vast wealth. Tower Heist and 2 Broke Girls suggest that may be changing.

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Universal Pictures

Hollywood's responded to the recession by making movies about the people who conduct mass layoffs and the people who rebuild their lives after them, bankers who go to hell for foreclosing on gypsies, and fantasies of vengeance against Bernie Madoff. And in recent months, a movie and a television show have challenged one of Hollywood's own persistent economic myths: the idea that the American dream means achieving extreme wealth, rather than economic security.

Tower Heist—which opened this weekend and stars Ben Stiller as Josh Kovacs, a luxury apartment building manager and Alan Alda as a Madoff-like Ponzi schemer Arthur Shaw—is, as the title suggests, a heist flick. But while the action sequences are risible (if realistically queasy), the movie is at times an acid comedy about how difficult it is to resist the allure of wealth.

At the beginning of the movie, Josh tells himself that his relationship with his richest client is professional, but for the first half of the movie, he's clearly deluded. He and Shaw play chess over breakfast, and Josh listens to an interminable radio show about Bouchon cheese and killing your own Thanksgiving turkeys so he can impress Shaw with suggestions for food and wine pairings. When it's revealed that Shaw ripped off the pensions of the people who have made his life comfortable for years, it turns out it was Josh who fell for the promise of exorbitant returns on their investment. It isn't really enough for him to make other people's lives free of ordinary concerns: Josh wouldn't mind some of that comfort for himself, and in pursuing it, he's denied himself and his friends even the prospect of a modest but dignified retirement.

It takes the explanation of a former investment banker who's being evicted from the building to make clear the full extent of what Shaw's done to his employees—and the fact that his lifestyle was the result of fraud rather than hard work or reliable knowledge of the markets. "At a certain point, it isn't about securities fraud," the depressed banker (played by Matthew Broderick) explains. "It's about catering." When Josh tells Shaw that one of the defrauded employees has attempted suicide and asks if he cares, Shaw insists that of course he does because "Lester has been part of my life for over a decade." "Then why haven't you asked if he's alive or dead?" Josh asks bitterly, remarking that Shaw's opulent displays of wealth are irreplaceable, "not like doormen." Shaw's ongoing schtick where he pretends he's just "an Astoria boy, like Josh" is, it turns out, its own kind of callousness. Josh may have envied Shaw's wealth and taste, but when he learns what it would take to achieve them, it turns out there are other things he values just as highly, among them, community and fairness.

CBS's 2 Broke Girls focuses on a different kind of victim of a similar fraudster: a Ponzi schemer's daughter. When Caroline finds herself locked out of her penthouse, she ends up waitressing in a Brooklyn diner and sharing an apartment with her coworker Max, who grew up poor and is now is hiding from her credit card bills and student loans by pretending to be dead. Their partnership is a reset for both of them. Caroline has to confront that her old life might have been momentarily secure, but it wasn't exactly admirable, much less sustainable. "Now that you support yourself by earning your own money, that's somehow shameful?" Max asks Caroline after she flees from an ex-boyfriend who she is afraid will mock her for working as a waitress. As the series progresses, Caroline's friendship is unsettling for Max not just because Caroline can be dippy and naive, but because her expectations force Max to confront the idea that she deserves more than a terrifying dentist in the subway and debt that will cripple her for the rest of her life.

Neither woman should have lived the way she has for the previous twenty-odd years, Caroline in a false paradise, Max in poverty that's hardened her to the point of brittleness. But their plan to open a cupcake shop together is a class-war compromise, a promise that with hard work they can achieve a sustainable comfort that Max has been afraid to even dream of and that Caroline previously would have seen as a nightmare. The show is far from perfect—it's fallen prey to ugly racial stereotypes and stupid sex jokes. But it's providing Caroline with an honest education in the subjects that Arthur Shaw only pretends to know about.

If Tower Heist is about the impossibility of the 99 percent and the 1 percent to talk honestly to each other, 2 Broke Girls is about how people across the 99 percent began to see themselves as participants in the same uncertain economy, rather than divided into working class, middle class, and endless variants thereof. Downward mobility, or the risk of it, has had a clarifying effect, letting some Americans see and feel the possibility of what many others have known all along.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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