Unemployment at the Movies: 15 Films for Tough Times

  1. From Great Depression to Great Recession
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    From Great Depression to Great Recession

    Hard times can bring out the best in filmmakers. Directors such as John Ford and Elia Kazan have used the search for a job as a lens to examine social injustice or societal disruption. But don't discount the comic value of a pink slip, too—as the heroes of Office Space (above) so keenly demonstrated. With the global economy stuck in a rut, here are 15 jobless-themed films, stretching over 80-plus years. Photograph: Courtesy of Everett Collection
  2. The Last Laugh (1924)
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    The Last Laugh (1924)

    Starring: Emil Jannings
    Director: F.W. Murnau
    German Unemployment Rate, 1924: 13.1%

    The proud doorman of the Atlantic Hotel is demoted to washroom attendant after his boss catches him resting. Ashamed, he steals his prized doorman's uniform and wears it to and from the hotel to try to maintain a facade. F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu) and his lead, German great Jannings, drive home the fragile connection between work and respect in this silent classic. Photograph: Courtesy of Everett Collection
  3. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
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    The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

    Starring: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine
    Director: John Ford
    U.S. Unemployment Rate, 1940: 14.6%

    The epic tale of the Joad family's search for jobs in Depression America. Tom (Fonda) returns from prison just in time to see his family kicked off their farm. They strike out for California, where it's rumored there are plenty of jobs. Instead they wind up in an itinerant camp with other desperate families. Tom finds more trouble than work and delivers an immortal speech against injustice. Photograph: Courtesy of Everett Collection
  4. Bicycle Thieves (1948)
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    Bicycle Thieves (1948)

    Starring: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell
    Director: Vittorio De Sica

    Italian Unemployment Rate, 1948: N/A


    If you've ever lost a job for want of reliable transportation, you'll sympathize with Antonio (Maggiorani). The film tracks a desperate search for the men who stole Antonio's bicycle, his only means of keeping a job hanging Rita Hayworth posters in post-World War II Italy, where unemployment rivaled that of Depression-era America. Director De Sica delivers a rumination on labor and dignity. Photograph: Courtesy of Everett Collection
  5. On the Waterfront (1954)
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    On the Waterfront (1954)

    Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb
    Director: Elia Kazan
    U.S. Unemployment Rate, 1954: 5.6%

    Terry Malloy (Brando) is the ex-prizefighter who has to choose between a cushy, no-show job and the hard work of doing the right thing. Terry provides muscle for Johnny Friendly's mobbed-up union thugs, but he falls for the sister of one of Johnny's victims. When he decides to testify about waterfront corruption, he is cast out of the gang. Kazan directs heavyweights who include Rod Steiger and a real-life fighter, "Two Ton" Tony Galento. Photograph: Courtesy of Everett Collection
  6. The Godfather Part II (1974)
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    The Godfather Part II (1974)

    Starring: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro
    Director: Francis Ford Coppola
    U.S. Unemployment Rate, 1974: 5.6%

    It all began with a layoff in turn-of-the-century New York City. In Coppola's strong sequel to The Godfather, young Vito Corleone (De Niro) steals away to America and takes a job in a grocery store. He is fired when a local mob boss forces the store owner to hire his nephew. Thwarted by nepotism, Vito takes up a life of crime with pals Peter Clemenza and Sal Tessio. And the rest is cinema history. Photograph: Courtesy of Everett Collection
  7. Tootsie (1982)
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    Tootsie (1982)

    Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Teri Garr
    Director: Sydney Pollack
    U.S. Unemployment Rate, 1982: 9.7%

    At a time when women were trying to break into the corporate world, along came a film about a man who dresses up as a woman to land a job. Actor Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) becomes Dorothy Michaels so he can work in a soap opera. Dorothy's assertiveness makes her an inspiring hero for women. Then things get really complicated: He/she becomes a soul sister to his love interest (Lange) and the love interest of her father. The only way out is an on-air finale in which Dorothy must tie up all the loose ends. Photograph: Courtesy of Everett Collection
  8. Lost in America (1985)
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    Lost in America (1985)

    Starring: Albert Brooks, Julie Hagerty
    Director: Albert Brooks
    U.S. Unemployment Rate, 1985: 7.2%

    You'll come away with a whole new appreciation for the "nest egg principle." After David (Brooks) is denied a promotion, he impulsively convinces wife Linda (Hagerty) they should ditch their jobs and hit the road in a Winnebago to find America and "touch Indians." But on a stopover to get remarried in Las Vegas, Linda loses all their money. They are forced back to work, he as a crossing guard and she as an assistant to a teenager at a Der Wienerschnitzel. Photograph: Courtesy of Everett Collection
  9. Gung Ho (1986)
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    Gung Ho (1986)

    Starring: Michael Keaton, Gedde Watanabe
    Director: Ron Howard
    U.S. Unemployment Rate, 1986: 7.0%

    Hunt Stevenson (Keaton) is foreman of a Pennsylvania car factory that's been shut down; he has to convince Japanese auto executives to reopen it. They agree, but only if they can subject the American workers to lower pay and new work rules. Conflict and cultural confusion ensue. Worth watching if only to confirm that there once was a time when Japan seemed unstoppable and unions had power. Photograph: Courtesy of Everett Collection
  10. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
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    Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

    Starring: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin
    Director: James Foley
    U.S. Unemployment Rate, 1992: 7.5%

    Just imagine how cutthroat this crew would be in today's housing market. Blake (Baldwin) has been sent to light a fire under the salesmen at a tough Chicago real estate office. His pitch: a sales contest in which only the top two sellers will keep their jobs. The salesmen in this film version of David Mamet's play are matched in desperation only by their would-be clients. To quote Blake: "Only one thing counts in this life: Get them to sign on the line which is dotted." Photograph: Courtesy of Everett Collection
  11. Falling Down (1993)
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    Falling Down (1993)

    Starring: Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey
    Director: Joel Schumacher
    U.S. Unemployment Rate, 1993: 6.9%

    A movie that became a cultural touchpoint for its portrayal of a laid-off Los Angeles defense worker gone mad. For D-FENS—we know him by his vanity license plate—the "peace dividend" has delivered a pink slip, a broken family, and bewildering cultural disconnection. Douglas's character's very bad day starts with a traffic jam and goes downhill. He wants to get to his daughter's birthday party, but instead wages one battle after another. Think of it as Death Wish, West Coast edition. Photograph: Courtesy of Everett Collection
  12. Office Space (1999)
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    Office Space (1999)

    Starring: Ron Livingston, Jennifer Aniston, Gary Cole
    Director: Mike Judge
    U.S. Unemployment Rate, 1999: 4.2%

    It wasn't obvious at the time, but Judge's movie would be one of the most enduring products of the late '90s tech bubble. Peter Gibbons (Livingston) is accidently hypnotized into a state of bliss, rendering him incapable of taking seriously his job at software company Initech. Full of spot-on commentary about office life, from the insufferable boss Lumbergh (Cole) and his "TPS reports" to the consultants who mistake Peter's aloofness for leadership potential. When his programming pals are laid off, Peter leads the revenge, first on a fax machine and then on Initech itself. Photograph: Courtesy of Everett Collection
  13. Time Out (2001)
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    Time Out (2001)

    Starring: Aurélien Recoing, Karin Viard, Serge Livrozet
    Director: Laurent Cantet
    French Unemployment Rate, 2001: 7.8%

    Vincent (Recoing) has lost his job—he's just not telling anyone. Also unclear is what he's up to now: a new consulting job with the U.N.? An investment scam? As his fantasy life ropes in a widening circle of friends and family members, the pressure builds and Vincent's calm facade begins to crumble. Vincent drives from dreary office to bland apartment complex, watching family and former colleagues through windows in the dark, having lost his identity when he was shown the door. Photograph: Courtesy of Everett Collection
  14. Tokyo Sonata (2008)
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    Tokyo Sonata (2008)

    Starring: Teruyuki Kagawa, Kyoko Koizumi, Yu Koyanagi
    Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
    Japanese Unemployment Rate, 2008: 4%

    A meditation on the erosion of Japan's rigid social structure during its economically stagnant Lost Years. When Ryuhei Sasaki (Kagawa) is let go from his administrative post, he can't bear to tell his wife. But his desperate attempts to maintain order fail. His youngest son defies his parents and takes piano lessons; the oldest son joins the American military. Ryuhei's wife (Koizumi) runs off with a burglar. A former schoolmate, also secretly unemployed, shows Ryuhei how to take the charade a step further: He has set his cell phone to ring five times an hour to provide the illusion he's still in the loop. Photograph: Courtesy of Everett Collection
  15. Up in the Air (2009)
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    Up in the Air (2009)

    Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick
    Director: Jason Reitman
    U.S. Unemployment Rate, 2009: 9.3%

    A sharp jab at the cold world of corporate outplacement. Ryan (Clooney) is a "transition counselor" who flies around the country to fire people for bosses who won't do it themselves. Now Ryan is himself being grounded as his company moves to let workers go remotely, over the Internet (another job for the cloud!). He hits the road with young Natalie (Kendrick), who is to learn the ropes. What follows is a textured examination of the men and women caught in the economy's collapse and those who profit from it. Photograph: Courtesy of Everett Collection
  16. Everything Must Go (2010)
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    Everything Must Go (2010)

    Starring: Will Ferrell, Rebecca Hall, Christopher Jordan Wallace
    Director: Dan Rush
    U.S. Unemployment Rate, 2010: 9.6%

    No hiding the indignity of a layoff in this one. It's all out in the open—literally—for Nick Halsey (Ferrell). Nick has hit the misery trifecta: A relapsed alcoholic, he's been fired and his wife has left him. His solution? Live in his front yard with his "stuff," or at least hold a yard sale as long as he can legally pull it off. The tale is adapted from a Raymond Carver short story published in the late 1970s, yet the theme of a man's struggle for dignity seems very much of these times. Photograph: Courtesy of Everett Collection