CAREER OPPORTUNITIES (Bryan Gordon, 1991)
When I was in high school I entertained the notion that spending a full 24 hours with friends in Meijer, a Midwestern supermarket supercenter chain, would be a fun thing to do. Everything one could want or need would be under that enormous roof. I could eat three square meals, watch the row of display TVs, play the floor model video game console, read a book or magazine, and probably grab a nap in the camping section if a little shuteye was necessary.
Since Meijer is open 24 hours a day, attempting this feat was feasible, assuming management didn’t get suspicious of teenagers hanging out for such a long time. I suppose a day of roaming the aisles of mega-commerce could be pulled off today if this feat still sounded appealing in any way. Maybe the attraction would return if Jennifer Connelly wanted to accompany me on the adventure. After all, according to CAREER OPPORTUNITIES a woman like her is attainable at your monolithic neighborhood discount retailer.
In the 1991 comedy 21-year-old Jim Dodge (Frank Whaley) is living up to his surname as far as adulthood is concerned. He has been fired from countless jobs, spins wild fictions of his activities, resides with his parents, and doesn’t show any concern that such an undistinguished existence is his present and foreseeable future in sleepy, working class Monroe, Illinois.
Jim’s dad (John M. Jackson) gives him one more chance to get his act together. Otherwise it’s off to St. Louis to work for his uncle. Jim is dropped at the front doors of Target and expected to come home with employment. Things are looking up when he negotiates a plum hiring package from a middle manager (an uncredited John Candy), but it turns out Jim was mistaken for an operations manager candidate. The offer is immediately withdrawn. Instead Jim is presented with a virtually minimum wage job as the night janitor or nothing.
On his first night the head custodian (William Forsythe) locks Jim in the superstore and explains that he’ll be back at 7 a.m. Jim puts his nose to the grindstone for a bit, but it isn’t long before he’s availing himself of the store’s wares and roller skating up and down the aisles in his underwear. Then he glimpses a girl. And not just any girl but The Girl. Josie McClellan (Connelly), the beautiful daughter of the town’s wealthiest man, is there looking back at him.
Josie fell asleep in the dressing room while hiding there and weighing whether or not to shoplift. As she explains to Jim, she resents her father and feels like her life peaked with high school. A little petty theft might rattle her dad and grant her the personal freedom she doesn’t feel is available without drastic action, although she inevitably lacks the courage to follow through on her ill-considered plan.
During their overnight talks Josie senses that Jim is a kindred spirit in spite of their obvious differences. Neither is happy with their current lots, but she has enough cash in her purse that they can pick a place on the map, run off together, and start anew. Before they can follow through on their impetuous decision, a pair of bumbling crooks (Dermot Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney) break into the store and hold them hostage, sort of.
Although Bryan Gordon directs CAREER OPPORTUNITIES, the film so distinctly bears producer and screenwriter John Hughes’ fingerprints that one can be forgiven for thinking he’s behind the camera. Jim is a deluded washout, yet he’s a character very much in the tradition of Ferris Bueller. (Never mind that Whaley’s performance is in the register of Woody Allen as a ‘50s-styled Midwestern gentile.) His verbal dexterity and flair for bold acts are meant to recall that high school hero, except the best Jim can do is impress grade school kids who readily swallow the baloney he feeds them. Jim’s hometown knows him as a liar--Josie says so--yet the film can’t help but inexplicably view him as a charming dreamer. Ferris Bueller pushed the limits but had the good sense not to be as self-sabotaging as Jim.
Jim and Josie don’t set all manner of painful traps to fend off the thieves, but HOME ALONE is also imprinted on CAREER OPPORTUNITIES. Like an unattended child doing what mom and dad won’t allow, Jim indulges his whims with Target to himself...and so can you during regular shopping hours in their 1763 stores in 49 states. (I have no idea what Target’s financial involvement was with the film, but surely it was a cozy corporate relationship. Target’s bullseye logo is used in the on-screen opening title.) The stupid robbers who interrupt Jim’s blissful evening with Josie might as well have driven across the state from failed burglaries in HOME ALONE’s Chicago suburb to Monroe.
The class-conscious romance is pure Hughes, although in this instance it hardly seems credible in spite of some nice moments Josie and Jim share as they open up to each other and discuss their disappointments. Hughes displays a deft touch in Jim’s initial failure to listen to Josie as she reveals deep fears of what awaits her. He’s so caught up in his own neuroses that he can’t take the time to pay attention to her in a way that it seems no one ever has. Hughes’ skill in tapping adolescent longing is also evident in Jim’s remembrance of the brief contact he had with Josie in high school. While he vividly recalls the time they danced not even for the duration of one song and wishes it could have been slightly more, she retains no knowledge of it.
Such interactions and the confessions therein might have amounted to something substantial if CAREER OPPORTUNITIES were stripped to their heartfelt conversations. That’s where the film’s modest strengths are found. Instead the romance is broken up by the aforementioned criminals, Josie’s father (Noble Willingham) and a police officer (Barry Corbin) searching the town for her, and, most unnecessarily, cutaways of Jim’s dad engaged in a late night bout of stress eating. With these regular diversions the bond between Jim and Josie becomes too easily forged, especially considering the distance with which Connelly plays her poor little rich girl character and the happy ending envisioned for these two.
For better and worse, CAREER OPPORTUNITIES plays like a hodgepodge of Hughes’ greatest hits. The themes resonate while the particulars don't translate as well to young adults. The confidence that Jim and Josie can break out of their ruts and thrive together would be more convincing if they were headed to college and not a working world they are unequipped for. The problem isn’t that CAREER OPPORTUNITIES devotes its heart to romantic fantasy but that it throws reason and reality to the wind for an off-putting guy and shortsighted girl. After all, in the early morning hours sweeping floors at Target, you’re more likely to come face to face with a mess in aisle three needing cleaned up than the girl of your dreams with $52,000 in cash and looking to run away to California with you.