Disney stands to make a fair return on its investment with “The Associate,” a comedy featuring Whoopi Goldberg as a Wall Street financial analyst who kicks a hole in the glass ceiling. Pic strongly recalls “9 to 5,” both in the specifics of its plot — women achieve corporate success while pretending to be agents of a male mastermind — and in its attempts to demonstrate that revenge is as sweet as sisterhood is powerful. Given the recent box office dominance of “The First Wives Club,” it’s clear that audiences are receptive to this formula. The only question is, will ticket-buyers accept the formula when it’s spiked with a touch of “Mrs. Doubtfire”? Most likely.
During the first hour or so, “The Associate” is a slick but relatively subdued pic about an audacious hoax born of inspiration and desperation. Laurel Ayres (winningly played by Goldberg) is an extremely shrewd and sharp-witted analyst for a major Wall Street firm. Unfortunately, she’s also a woman, which means she isn’t granted free entry to the old-boy network.
When she loses a promotion to a far less qualified male colleague, Laurel quits the firm and forms her own company. But no one pays much attention to her financial proposals, because — well, because she’s a woman, out on her own, with no male colleagues to support her. (The movie never suggests that potential clients are rebuffing Laurel because she is black. Or because she has the brassy manner and trademark hairdo of Whoopi Goldberg. To a surprisingly great degree, “The Associate” is color blind.)
In order to gain credibility in the world of high-stakes investments. Laurel invents a male partner, Robert S. Cutty, a mysterious financial whiz who’s never seen but frequently remarked upon. When Cutty’s advice — relayed, of course, through Laurel — begins to pay off for investors, Laurel’s business begins to expand. It also comes under close scrutiny by her former employers, much to the chagrin of Frank (Tim Daly), the colleague who snatched the promotion Laurel deserved.
Laurel doesn’t actually have to produce Cutty until well into “The Associate.” That’s when the pic takes a detour into broader and more gimmicky humor. With the help of her upstairs neighbor, a female impersonator, Laurel is able to transform herself into a pastyfaced, pony-tailed guy who looks a lot like Marlon Brando playing George Washington.
Director Donald Petrie and screenwriter Nick Thiel are smart enough to not push their luck. Goldberg appears in male disguise only twice in “The Associate ,” during an extended sequence at the Plaza Hotel and at a climactic banquet gathering. There is a very funny moment when Bebe Neuwirth, playing a sultry “personal stockbroker,” strips for action while she tries to seduce the understandably anxious “Robert S. Cutty.” But even then, it’s glaringly obvious that Goldberg is wearing a great deal of stiff, rubbery makeup. (Oscar-winner Greg Cannon created the facial prosthetics.) Unlike “Mrs. Doubtfire” — or, for that matter. “Tootsie” — “The Associate” makes little effort to create and sustain a persuasive illusion that might really fool people in the real world. This isn’t a fatal flaw, but it does make the audience work a little harder when it comes to suspending disbelief during the pic’s second half.
“The Associate” is more effective as farce, and more on target as a sharp-edged satire, when Laurel sticks to being Laurel, and Goldberg behaves with her familiar sass and brass. Loosely based on a French comedy titled “L’Associe,” Thiel’s screenplay makes some insightful points about the power plays, rumor-manufacturing and institutionalized sexism in the world of high finance. The dialogue is snappy, the insider jargon is minimal, and the secondary characters are vividly drawn. Petrie keeps things moving briskly for most of the pic, although the pace begins to flag in the final half-hour.
In addition to Daly and Neuwirth, the fine supporting case includes Eli Wallach as an investor who demands to meet Cutty. Austin Pendleton as a software whiz whose company needs saving, and Lainie Kazan as a New York newspaper columnist who’ll stop at nothing to get the inside scoop on Cutty. Dianne Wiest gives a beaming, almost beatific performance as Laurel’s faithful assistant. She comes across as such a sympathetic character that the audience can’t help cheering when she gets to skewer her former boss in the final scene.
Filmed entirely on location in New York, “The Associate” is a brightly polished confection that boasts first-rate production values. The suitably energetic soundtrack mixes original and newly recorded versions of familiar pop tunes, with a couple of selections by Mozart thrown in for good measure.