How to Beat the High Co$t of Living (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Ball full of money.

            Jane, Elaine, and Louise (Susan Saint James, Jane Curtain, Jessica Lange) are three women who find themselves in financial straits. They become aware of a contest going on at their local mall that features a giant plastic ball filled with money. The idea is to guess how much money is inside the ball, but the women decide to tunnel underneath the building and suck the money out with a vacuum.

The movie falls flat from the beginning. There is no action, hijinks, jokes, or pratfalls. Everything relies on the dialogue that is boring and conventional. The small attempts at humor including some Abraham Lincoln jokes are stale and unimaginative. It takes a plodding 35 minutes just to detail all of their financial difficulties and then another 40 minutes of going through their planning phase before we ever get to the actual heist, which proves not to be worth the wait.

Having a giant ball in the middle of the mall makes for an interesting visual and the concept of trying to get money out of it managed to hold my interest somewhat in what is otherwise a highly uninspired movie. However, I found it hard to believe that these women, as financially desperate as they were, would decide to pull off such a dangerous and complex heist when they had no experience in robbing anything before. Having them rob a bank, although more standard, would have made more sense and with a little imagination could have been even funnier and more interesting. The actual execution of the crime is dull and I thought it was really reckless and stupid that they chose to do it while security guards where standing around it and tons of people present watching a nearby play instead of waiting until the place closed. Also, it was ridiculous during the planning stage when they decided to force Jane to rob a grocery store in order to get her ‘psychologically ready’ and prove that she had the ‘guts’ to pull off the big heist, but this seemed stupid because if she got caught, which could easily happen, then all their plans would have been ruined.

The only thing that half-way saves it are the female leads and I liked all three of them. Saint James is a very attractive woman and normally I don’t particularly like ladies with husky voices, but with her it is sexy. I also enjoyed the naïve quality of her character. Lange is young and beautiful here and looking light years removed from the southern accented old crone that she has been playing in ‘An American Horror Story’. Her vivaciousness helps propel every scene that she is in. Curtain is a blast as well. She has impeccable comic timing and I always felt her presence on ‘Saturday Night Live’ was one of the main reasons that show was so successful and ground-breaking during its first five seasons. The only problem I had with the character is that she performs a striptease near the end, which isn’t funny or sexy and comes off as stupid and degrading instead. It is also quite clearly a body double and not Curtain herself that you end up seeing topless, so for any voyeurs out there who might think of buying this just for that reason, don’t bother.

The male leads are essentially wasted. Eddie Albert has a meaningless role as Jane’s father and I could see no other reason for why he took the part except that he wanted to stay busy in his old age. Richard Benjamin can be great at times, but here his character is vapid. I also thought it was a bit strange that he was cast as Lange’s husband since in real-life he was eleven years older and given her very youthful appearance here almost made it look like a middle-aged guy bedding a minor. Dabney Coleman is cast against type playing a nice guy for a change instead of a conniving jerk that he usually does. Since he plays conniving jerks so well I have always enjoyed him and the change of pace is interesting for a few seconds before it becomes boring like everything else.

The on-location shooting in Eugene, Oregon does not help. The music score comes about as close to ‘elevator music’ as you can get. The opening animation sequence is lame. Outside of a slightly amusing cameo by Garret Morris this thing never gels and it is one film you can afford to miss.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: July 11, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 44Minutes

Rated PG (Brief Nudity)

Director: Robert Sheerer

Studio: American International

Available: VHS, DVD, Netflix streaming

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