Taking Care of Business (Arthur Hiller, 1990)

Designed for the film lover in mind, SHOUT SELECT shines a light on films that deserve a spot on your shelf. From acknowledged classics to cult favorites to unheralded gems, SHOUT SELECT celebrates the best in filmmaking, giving these movies the love and attention they deserve.

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All happy-go-lucky convict Jimmy Dworski (James Belushi) wants out of life is to see the Chicago Cubs win the World Series and so he promptly breaks out of prison after winning tickets to Game Six on a radio show. When he finds the day planner of ultra-organized executive Spencer Barnes (Charles Grodin), Jimmy assumes Spencer’s identity and proceeds to get the most out of both their lives, all expenses paid! Lost without his credit cards and contacts, Spencer’s frantic efforts to save his beloved book and stave off career suicide puts him on the wrong side of street gangs, cops, and county clubs. Hector Elizondo (Pretty Woman), Gates McFadden (Star Trek: The Next Generation), Anne De Salvo (Arthur), and Mako (Conan the Barbarian) also star in this hilarious take on mistaken identity and go-go careerism!

Special Features:

  • NEW Being Spencer Barnes – Interviews With Charles Grodin And James Belushi
  • NEW Straightforward And True – An Interview With Loryn Locklin
  • NEW Don’t Be Afraid To Call Me – An Interview With Anne DeSalvo
  • NEW It’s A Tough Prison – An Interview With Hector Elizondo
  • NEW Put On Your Togs – New Interviews With John de Lancie and Thom Sharp
  • Theatrical Trailer

I keep some long lists of movies slated for MMC! discussion and I had two or three films in mind for this Shout Select proposal, but Father’s Day was last month and I got thinking about my own Dad’s favourite films, so I’m jettisoning my planned titles in favour of Arthur Hiller’s Taking Care of Business (1990). Taking Care of Business is unlikely to be a film demanded by many, but my Dad and I used to howl at the sophomorically conventional humour of TCB and I have very fond memories of recording the film from Super Channel and replaying that bootleg until eventually tracking down a DVD to replace our deteriorating dupe. He’d have loved a special edition of TCB full of interviews and stories of its production but without such a version in circulation or my father around to watch it, I’m left to imagine a fitting tribute to his (and my) questionable taste.

The central conflict of Taking Care of Business is represented in the animated title sequence that opens the movie. One man paces behind bars, tossing a baseball into a glove. Another man is swamped by a growing collage of graphs, notes, and day planner entries. The former is Jimmy Dworski (James Belushi), a habitual car thief who wins tickets to see the Cubs play the Angels in the World Series just days before his release from prison. When the warden (Hector Elizondo) refuses to let Jimmy out early to see the game and revokes the entire prison’s television privileges, the inmates concoct a false strike to allow their beloved Jimmy to escape and see the game firsthand. The title sequence’s latter figure is uptight and overworked Spencer Barnes (Charles Grodin), who cancels a much needed vacation with his wife (Veronica Hamel) when his boss Walter Bentley (Stephen Elliott) waves an executive vice-presidency under his nose and sends him to Malibu for the weekend to land an advertising account for Quality Foods.

Press materials indicate that scriptwriters Jill Mazursky and Jeffrey Abrams (better known today as one J.J. Abrams!) dreamed up the film in a shopping mall, an underwhelming anecdote befitting the film’s all too familiar concept. Taking Care of Business is essentially an involuntary version of The Prince and the Pauper, or rather a West Coast re-heating of John Landis’ Trading Places (1983) with all of that film’s complexities of race, class, and locale removed. (Trading Places was another of my Dad’s favourites and might explain his affinity for TCB.) At the airport, Spencer misplaces his filofax, a day planner that he relies upon totally as it contains every phone number, address, appointment, and “power word” he needs for this business trip. (Taking Care of Business was released in the UK as Filofax.) Jimmy expectedly find the filofax and hitches a ride to the address referenced inside (Walter’s opulent beach house) to collect the book’s $1,000 reward, however Spencer never arrives as he is mugged and later arrested. Without money, identification, or any contact information, Spencer is forced to rely on the goodwill of newly single, former high school classmate Debbie Lipton (Anne De Salvo) whom he ran into on his flight and who gave him her number as his “friend in LA.” Jimmy accidentally backs into Spencer’s life in the interim, striking up a romance with Walter’s beautiful daughter Jewel (Loryn Locklin) and sinking the business deal with Quality Foods after beating the company’s CEO Mr. Sakamoto (Mako) at tennis (“Choke up on that racquet!”) and offending Diane Connors (Gates McFadden), the company’s American executive (“Don’t lose that broom, witch.”).

Overall, TCB is as mechanically reliable to entertain as the Bachman-Turner Overdrive song that names the film and plays during the title sequence, a tune Dennis Miller once described as the saviour of all dancing white men for having “that amazingly simplistic drumbeat that even basic amoeba could keep time to.” Belushi conveys the improbable boyish charm of being, in Nathan Rubin’s apt words, “a PG-13 kind of guy in a PG world,” giving relationship advice to Jewel taken from Dr. Ruth and passed off as if it were his own, then capping an important business dinner/train wreck with his trademark toast, “To the Cubs winning the World Series … and big tits!” Charles Grodin is in his wheelhouse here, seething and screaming, being too angry and frustrated to ever wash his filthy face or change out of the parachute pants or stained country club sweater that cause him to resemble “a clown at a costume party.” Eventually the script demands that Jimmy and Spencer meet. Spencer is fired, the Cubs win, Jimmy’s carefree attitude teaches everyone something about life and living (particularly to Spencer), and Jimmy is smuggled back into prison to be released as scheduled (with Belushi providing a clear antecedent to Mrs. Doubtfire in the process). Critics generally disliked the film at its release, many finding it unfunny, overly familiar, and unkind to its female characters, but TCB was nevertheless a commercial success at the box office, making a cool $6 million beyond its $14 million budget.

Jonathan Rosenbaum seemed generously charmed by the movie despite its supposed weaknesses, remarking that Taking Care of Business “is a pretty stupid comedy in spots, with holes wide enough to drive trucks through, and director Arthur Hiller is as clunky as ever, but the cast is so funny and likable—above all, costars Jim Belushi and Charles Grodin, and newcomer Loryn Locklin—that they almost bring it off in spite of itself.” Part of what makes the film comedically successful (I suspect Rosenbaum likes it more than he lets on) is its bounty of hilariously performed reaction shots – Loryn Locklin’s befuddlement at her new suitor, Mako’s chattering hostility on the tennis court, Charles Grodin’s barely contained, teeth-clenched impatience, James Belushi’s man-child wonderment and laissez-faire reply to responsibility – and nowhere is TCB‘s celebration of reaction better seen than in Jimmy’s failing performance as Spencer during a post-tennis match business dinner. In truth, virtually all of Belushi’s work is reaction while Jimmy masquerades as Spencer. He struggles to fit into a world he knows virtually nothing about, haphazardly feeling out a suitable path for himself and then quickly getting too far ahead. The humour in Jimmy’s denigration of the Quality Foods line is found less in his plain-spoken criticisms and more in the wincing expressions of Big Sak, the ice queen stiffness of Diane, and the tittering embarrassment of Mike and Ted (Thom Sharp and John de Lancie), pair of company men assigned to shepherd Spencer through the weekend and enlivened by the faux-Spencer’s demeanour. Taking Care of Business is full of these little moments of character actor revelry that serve to lightly punctuate the movie’s comedy and bring a sense of community to a generically conventional offering.

Taking Care of Business is certainly a stupid film full of easy choices, but stupid films have their place as cinema comfort food and TCB remains a funny, indulgent 112 minutes. Hiller’s film languishes in an out of print, bare bones DVD but Shout Select could easily rectify that with a pristine print and some new interviews. The label has already shown its affinity for Charles Grodin buddy pictures with Midnight Run (Martin Brest, 1988) and more than few people must like James Belushi enough to have kept According to Jim on the air for 8 seasons and 182 episodes. Give those silent masses what they want!

Shout Select has an established affinity for its catalogue’s production art, so MMC! will end this proposal with a brief discussion of the thoroughly wonky poster for Taking Care of Business. Acclaimed artist Drew Struzan offers metaphor over fact, as at no time in the film does a giant Jimmy Dworski surf atop a Town Car too small to fully accommodate Spencer Barnes. Belushi is the movie’s star simply based on his size alone and his sunglasses, loud shirt, receding hairline, blue jean pants, white sneakers, and reckless daredevil behaviour are the costume of what Homer Simpson calls “big fat party animals,” i.e. comedy stars of the 1980s. Interestingly, Drew Struzan’s own posted version of the picture shows Spencer in proportion to the car, the car as a Rolls Royce instead of an American sedan, and Dworski even more gigantic in comparison. One suspects that marketing people and Grodin’s agent had some notes on Struzan’s original concept.

Credits: Big thanks to my Dad for all the good memories associated with TCB and a belated Happy Father’s Day to all the dads that visit MMC! All the special features described above are pure inventions for this proposed edition, while the cover summary is adapted from the previous DVD packaging. This post owes thanks to Michael Wilmington’s scathing review, Jonathan Rosenbaum’s more measured take, and Nathan Rubin’s tongue-in-cheek recommendation of Taking Care of Business to sci-fi fans looking to explore J.J. Abrams early work.

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