Hughes Day Tuesday: ‘Career Opportunities’ (1991) has potential but slacks off on its first day on the job (Movie review)

C

areer Opportunities” (1991) is an often likable but ultimately unfocused entry in writer John Hughes’ oeuvre. Like the two armed robbers being distracted by Josie McClellan (Jennifer Connelly) riding a mechanical horse while wearing a tight tank top, I sometimes forget why I’m at this Target store in the first place. In their case, it’s to rob it for supplies; in my case, it’s to watch a thoughtful coming-of-age dramedy. In both cases, we get sidetracked.

There is a little more to this film from director Bryan Gordon than the opportunity to ogle Connelly. A story mostly set overnight in a Target (with cooperation from the chain) is unusual, for one thing. But there should be a lot more to it, not just a little more.

Hughes starts by posing a compelling question: What if Ferris Bueller was disliked instead of liked? In other words: What if Ferris existed in reality? Jim Dodge (Frank Whaley) can’t keep a job not because he tries hard and fails, but because he can’t be serious. Three local grade-schoolers on bicycles worship him and his tall tales, but he’s not amusing to anyone else, certainly not to his dad (John M. Jackson). Like the father from “Some Kind of Wonderful,” Mr. Dodge reasonably wants his post-grad son to get his s*** together.

It’s hard to not mention better Hughes films when discussing “Career Opportunities.” Josie, for her part, is like if “The Breakfast Club’s” Claire and Bender were combined: She’s rich, and her dad beats her. If Jim is stuck in this small town because of ennui, she’s stuck out of fear.

Whaley creates a not-too-annoying prankster, and Connelly hints at depth for Josie but can’t shake the beautiful cipher quality.

Whaley creates a not-too-annoying prankster, and Connelly hints at depth for Josie but can’t shake the beautiful cipher quality. When Jim makes dinner for himself and Josie using the store’s goods – they’re both locked in via the contrivance that Jim doesn’t get the keys on his first janitorial shift – we can see why she’s won over. And while he’s (initially) won over because she’s gorgeous, Hughes does give both of them heroic stuff to do in the showdown with the criminals (Dermot and Kieran Mulroney, trying for colorful personalities but not exactly competing with Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern).

There is something otherworldly about a big-box store in the middle of the night, simply because it’s an unusual setting, a place we’re not supposed to peek into. I wouldn’t be surprised if one scene from “Post Grad” is a tribute to this film. That 2009 rom-com isn’t a masterpiece, but it deals with post-high school directionlessness better than “Career” does, while also being funnier.

Some early Jim antics hit the spot, like when he pretends to be someone else in his job interview with a Target boss played by John Candy. But mostly, “Career” is toned as a character study. Despite having two focal characters instead of five, it doesn’t go as deep as “The Breakfast Club,” and in fact, it loses interest in the family conflicts and goes all in on the criminal plot.

We don’t see another interaction among the Dodge or McClellan families. Hughes does get in a subtle commentary about how ennui can be exacerbated by a steady 9-to-5 gig when we see Mr. Dodge yawning at a breakfast diner before work.

But Hughes’ screenplay has the same problem Jim does: It drifts into a fantasy world. The final shot finds Jim and Josie by a pool in California, starting their lives afresh, together. Fortunately for them, she does have access to her family’s money. And so we have a complete movie, but two uncomplicated arcs and lots of underexplored themes. The message is that life sucks unless you have money, yet I don’t think Hughes was aiming for that cynical note.

Or maybe he’s saying that life sucks unless you find love, which is a nice cinematic idea that’s been done better elsewhere. As noted, Whaley and Connelly have good moments together, and life-or-death stakes will quickly bind people together. Hughes isn’t intending this to be a “happily ever after,” but even the “happy next step” feels unearned since he skims over the family issues.

Still, as a small movie that puts 1991 Jennifer Connelly and Target’s wall of cassette tapes into a time capsule, I sort of like this middling trifle anyway.

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