Forget the true-love stuff; the real “what women want” fantasy of Something’s Gotta Give is the plain fact of Erica Barry—a whip-smart woman with professional respect and cash to burn, an intellectual as flush and secure as Jack Nicholson’s magnate playboy. Of course, Erica is a playwright, meaning she can luxuriate in her 600-thread-count milieu without rubbing us corporate-queasy types the wrong way. But what about the women who seek their fortunes on Wall Street, who endure or fight Bloombergian dress codes and boom-boom rooms, who battle for bonuses, bids, and bathrooms? In their debut documentary, Risk/Reward, Elizabeth Holder and Xan Parker follow four Wall Street women through the economic spiral of 2000-2002, interviewing them at intervals about careers, families, long commutes, and daily grinds.
Aside from a B-school recruiting flick, it would be tough to find a doc this blithely pro-biz, and Risk/Reward‘s softball compromises never yield Startup.com‘s inner-sanctum pathos. But at its core, there’s a “courage to be rich” realpolitik. Without invoking the “F-word,” the film implicitly places its four subjects at the vanguard of a certain kind of feminism—one that envisions financially liberated women occupying the uppermost chambers of power.
And it’s there that we meet Kimberley Euston, a tough-talking currency trader who wooed early customers with a promise to tell them “the story of how a girl from backwoods West Virginia went to work at the White House”; laser-eyed analyst Carol Warner Wilke, a household-products market analyst who runs conference calls between contractions from her maternity ward bed; Umber Ahmad, a Pakistani American Wharton student with a prayer-singing, scene-chewing daddy; and Louise Jones, a broker who talked her way into a stock exchange job after high school and eventually started a company. The directors’ original sole subject, Jones relates her backstory: abandoned as an infant in a phone booth, adopted by a working-class Staten Island couple, and raised in public housing. We then watch as the popular broker sells her company and decides to start a family with her female partner.
Aside from Jones’s emotional break with the Street, residual drama centers on Warner Wilke being ranked a top analyst, Euston jumping firms, and Ahmad’s chances with Morgan Stanley. In its pandering way, Risk/Reward provides its share of revealing detail. We catch Warner Wilke’s husband’s disappointed look when his suggestion that she relax after a success is met with a gleaming “That’s just not me!” We join a Sex and the City viewing chill-out where Ahmad’s cohorts lament that their only female role model at work is a gym-cut superwoman. And Euston confides her husband’s difficulty with relinquishing the breadwinning role. But Holder and Parker tread lightly on issues of sexism, and sex in general, and leave us wishing more questions were asked. Like, despite the notoriety of networking groups such as 85 Broads, is there still a stigma to organizing as women? What are the subjects’ politics, their views on traditional women’s issues? Would they call themselves feminists? And if they do, what does that mean?