Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Working Girl (1988)
Studio Line: 20th Century Fox - For anyone who's ever won. For anyone who's ever lost. And for anyone who's still in there trying.

Nominated for 6 Academy Awards®, director Mike Nichols' witty, romantic look at life in the corporate jungle stars Melanie Griffith as Tess McGill, an ambitious secretary with a unique approach for climbing the ladder to success. When her classy, but villainess boss (Sigourney Weaver) breaks a leg skiing, Tess simply take over her office, her apartment, even her wardrobe. She then creates a deal with a handsome investment banker (Harrison Ford) that will either take her straight to the top -- or finish her off for good.

Director: Mike Nichols
Cast: Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver, Melanie Griffith, Alec Baldwin, Joan Cusack, Philip Bosco
Academy Awards: Won for Best Song-"Let the River Run." Nominated for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actress-Melanie Griffith; Best Supporting Actress-Joan Cusack, Sigourney Weaver. 1989.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 3.0; English Dolby Surround 2.0, French Dolby Surround 2.0; subtitles English, Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 20 chapters; rated R; 116 min.; $24.98; street date 4/17/01.
Supplements: Trailers; TV Spots.
Purchase: DVD | Music soundtrack - Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: B-/B-/D-

Perhaps someday I’ll understand how Melanie Griffith ever became a star, but it won’t happen today. I’ve seen plenty of her films, and when she’s bad, she’s quite atrocious. Even at her best, I can’t understand her appeal, something that I strongly realized as I watched 1988’s Working Girl.

That was the film on which she really made her name; prior to that she’d been best known as Tippi Hedren’s daughter and Don Johnson’s wife. Although Griffith appeared in fairly-prominent movies like Something Wild and Body Double, it wasn’t until WG that she became a star.

And what a star she’s been! A look over her résumé shows a serious roster of duds, from 1992’s Shining Through to 1999’s Crazy In Alabama. How this woman continues to get work is beyond me. She’s reasonably attractive but she lacks any form of special beauty or charm, and she presents a consistently wooden, stiff screen presence that fails to engage me. As anyone who’s listened to the audio commentary for Alabama can attest, it certainly isn’t her brains that have kept her in the business, either.

Although Griffith does some of her best work in WG, her flaws still shine through, and she becomes the greatest failing of this otherwise reasonably-appealing romantic comedy. Griffith plays Tess McGill, a bright and clever secretary who consistently gets overlooked for promotion within her place of business. She’s unwilling to accept the subservience demanded of her sexist male bosses, so she gets bounced from person to person. Her last chance to succeed as a secretary in the office appears in the form of new hotshot Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver), someone who initially seems to be a great role model and friend for Tess.

However, after Katharine breaks her leg skiing and Tess has to tend to some of her boss’ personal details, Tess discovers that her new mentor has stolen an idea. Unwilling to let this happen again, she essentially poses as Katharine and tries to make the business deal take place in her boss’ absence. Through this masquerade, she meets dealmaker Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford), and a romance ensues.

Not much about Working Girl provides any kind of surprise, as the vast majority follows according to time-honored tradition. Really, the film felt like a combination of 9 to 5 and Pygmalion, with more of an emphasis on the first film; while Tess cleans up her Jersey-trash image and is much more elegant by the end of the movie, there’s not much emphasis on this aspect of the story. Instead, the plot concentrates on her dealings with Jack, both romantic and business-related.

With a better actress as Tess, WG could have been much better. To be certain, there was a lot of talent involved with it, from director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) to the many solid actors. In addition to Ford and Weaver, we find Alec Baldwin and Joan Cusack in key supporting roles, and if you watch carefully, you’ll find many other notables in small parts; keep an eye out for Olympia Dukakis, Kevin Spacey, Oliver Platt, and even David Duchovny. (The latter is the most difficult to locate - he’s in Cynthia’s engagement party.)

Weaver and Ford are uniformly excellent, though only she received a deserved Academy Award nomination for her performance. Cusack and - God help us - Griffith also got Oscar nods, but Ford was left out in the cold. (Weaver suffers a sad fate from 1988: she was apparently the first actor ever to be nominated twice in the same year but take home zero prizes, as her Best Actress nod for Gorillas In the Mist also failed to grab her a trophy.)

Weaver was too old for the part; Katharine is supposed to be just shy of 30, and Sigourney was pushing 40 at the time. Heck, even when Weaver was 30, she still looked much older; she’d always presented an unusually mature presence that made her seem older than her age, though that has now changed and she now looks much younger than her 51 years. Anyway, despite that one flaw, I loved Weaver’s work as Katharine. She makes the character supremely haughty and bold, and she adds the patronizing elegance that keeps her from being a cardboard cut-out. Make no mistake: Katharine’s the villain of the piece, but Weaver has a lot of fun with the role, and she creates a personality who livens up the film.

Ford has less to work with, but he manages to make the best of his underwritten role. His performance as Jack seemed like a neat combination of the spunky aspects of characters like Han Solo or Indiana Jones and his “nice guy” roles in flicks like The Fugitive. Ford infuses life into a bland part and seems very lively and loose in the role.

Too bad Griffith had to ruin the whole thing. She provides an extremely drab performance as Tess that magnifies all of her flaws. Although Tess is supposed to transform from meek but intelligent “working girl” into a gutsy go-getter, none of this shows up via her work. The only way I could tell any different between the two Tesses came from the shorter hair Griffith role as the more sophisticated character. Even her attempts to clean up her Jersey diction fell flat. When Tess is supposed to speak with a thick accent, it sounded the same as when she’s supposed to seem elegant and refined.

My Fair Lady this ain’t!

Ultimately, Working Girl offered a reasonably entertaining and amusing experience. Despite its shop-worn story, the film moved at a brisk pace, and the able support of most of the cast made it often seem quite entertaining. Without Melanie Griffith at the top, this could have been a very strong little romance, but as it stands, Working Girl only intermittently succeeds.

The DVD:

Working Girl appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. As a whole, WG presented something of a visual mixed bag; while much of the film looked quite good, it also showed a number of problems that ultimately led to a pretty average viewing experience.

As was the case with 1990’s Ghost - and many other films from this era - parts of WG suffered from a moderately drab look. Interiors particularly seemed bland, and they showed the movie’s weakest aspects. For the most part, sharpness was good, with most of the film appearing acceptably crisp and well-defined. Some softness interfered at times; for example, the first shot in which Sigourney Weaver came in looked fairly fuzzy and indistinct. However, much of the movie was accurate and distinct. Some moiré effects appeared at times; they mainly manifested themselves in clothes, as some checked patterns shimmered.

Print flaws were a fairly modest concern, but they cropped up at times. Throughout the film, occasional examples of grit and speckles appeared, and some light grain could also mar the presentation. However, these defects stayed relatively subdued, and as a whole, the image seemed acceptably clean.

Colors varied but were usually accurate and vivid. As usual, the best examples came during outdoors scenes; Weaver’s red ski-suit and the garish bridesmaids’ outfits at Joan Cusack’s wedding stood out from the pack. Interiors showed more drab and bland hues, unfortunately, as the tones looked moderately subdued at those times. Black levels also varied in intensity depending on the location. Outdoors, these elements seemed deep and rich, but when we went inside, they became a bit flat and muddy. Shadow detail seemed decent but unexceptional in either circumstance, but the additional clarity of the exterior shots made low-light scenes more pleasing as a whole in those situations. Ultimately, I thought much of Working Girl looked quite good, but a mix of flaws dropped my overall grade to a “B-“.

Similar issues affected my rating of the Dolby Digital 3.0 soundtrack of Working Girl. Note that although the DVD offered both the movie’s original 3.0 mix - which used just the front three speakers - and a newly-created Dolby Surround track, I went with the original in this case. Normally I choose to review the more ambitious audio, but when the newer mix seems inferior to the original, I mainly comment on the latter. This was the case with The Hollywood Knights, and it was true for Working Girl. Whatever additional auditory environment I heard from the Dolby Surround track was negated by its weaker dynamics; I found that the original 3.0 mix offered more lively and bright audio.

Since the surround usage of the new mix seemed to be fairly modest anyway, I didn’t miss its rear effects. The 3.0 track actually created a fairly broad environment for itself, though it was heavy on ambience with little real effects activity on the sides. In other words, we would hear vivid buzz from the left and right when in the offices, but nothing distinctive took place on the sides, and any form of panning or movement appeared nil. Carly Simon’s score popped up brightly from the right and left, however, and it ultimately seemed like an appropriate soundfield for this kind of light comedy.

Audio quality appeared acceptably but unspectacular. Dialogue seemed a little flat and could occasionally betray some modest edginess, but for the most part the speech was fairly accurate and natural, and I detected no problems related to intelligibility. Effects were somewhat thin and bland, but they played a small role in this mix, so they appeared good enough to not cause any problems. The music actually seemed nicely rich and lively, as Simon’s score presented modest but acceptable low end. In the end, this was a modest mix but it seemed fine for the material.

Working Girl includes very few extras, all of which relate to its advertising. There are two trailers for the movie; the first is most interesting because it includes some shots not found in the final film. The three TV spots also offer some unusual pleasures. Ad number two shows a hilarious dub when “slime” is substituted for “slut”, and the third is different because Joan Cusack provided an “in-character” voice-over to indicate the critical praise received by the film. Lastly, the “Fox Flix” area provides trailers for The Truth About Cats and Dogs, Norma Rae, 9 to 5, Nine Months and For the Boys.

Working Girl offers a modestly charming and entertaining production, one that would succeed much better without the presence of Melanie Griffith as its star. With her, the film is often interesting and witty, but her flat performance drags down the overall piece and makes it pretty mediocre as a whole. The DVD provides erratic but decent picture and sound, while it skimps on extras. Fans of Sigourney Weaver and/or Harrison Ford should give it a look, as they do some fine work here, but don’t expect much from the film’s lead.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.

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