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Thursday, Dec. 29, 2005 12:13 am

Retail hell

A handful of films present the story of America’s disenfranchised class

Christmas may the most eagerly awaited time of year for retailers, but generally it is hated by their employees. I spent nine years of my life in that quagmire, and I certainly don’t miss it now. Retail sales is one of the most misunderstood occupations. Witness the current furor over wages paid to Wal-Mart employees: A little research would reveal that the wages paid by the retail giant are pretty standard for chain stores. No one really understands. Retail workers are America’s disenfranchised class, and just a handful of films present their side. Music and movies are products that Hollywood understands, and that affords record stores more opportunities as settings. High Fidelity (2000) stars John Cusack as the owner of an independent store who’s having girlfriend problems. Rob’s dwelling on his failed relationships bogs the film down, but the scenes set in the store are priceless. Jack Black strikes sparks as everyone’s dream co-worker, whose opinionated rants at clueless customers over their inane choices are an inspiration to store clerks everywhere who are supposed to just keep smiling. (I did once recommend the wide-screen version of The English Patient to a customer so that she could see more sand.) I am baffled as to why many of my retail friends swear by Empire Records (1995), an idiotic fantasy view of life in a record store. Don’t bother. The Good Girl (2002), starring Jennifer Aniston, perfectly captures the mundane existence of workers in a small-town discount store. Now that Aniston is establishing herself on the big screen, her best film from the past deserves to find an audience. She certainly proves that she has the ability to move beyond her Friends character, Rachel. Zooey Deschanel gives hilarious support in the Jack Black role as the employee you don’t want near the customers. Clerks (1994) mirrors my personal experience closer than any other film has managed to, but in my case truth is stranger than fiction. The array of odd customers in Clerks can’t hold a candle to the daily parade of loonies that visited my store at the mall. The Trekkers and Klingons actually seemed normal compared with the guy who could blow up people’s heads with his mind and the Hopalong Cassidy wannabe who brought his invisible horse. Trust me, I’m not exaggerating. Now I’m glad to be able to sit out the holidays and watch Clerks from a greater distance. Everyone who works retail must see this gem of a comedy.
New releases on DVD on Tuesday (Jan. 3): Wedding Crashers, The Cave, and Mon Trésor.