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The Strange, Scattered Career Landscape in Cinema

The Strange, Scattered Career Landscape in Cinema: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution; Fox Searchlight Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

Buena Vista Pictures Distribution; Fox Searchlight Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

Waiting in line for a screening last week, a twentysomething duo casually eyed the poster for the Ben Affleck movie The Accountant.

She: “Ben Affleck. Could be pretty good.”
He: “No way I’m going to pay to watch Batman or whoever do somebody’s taxes.”

Affleck’s character in The Accountant crunches much more than numbers (see our review here), just as in The Mechanic Jason Statham isn’t actually an everyday grease monkey and Robert DeNiro doesn’t spend much of Taxi Driver battling Manhattan traffic. But the hero’s humdrum-sounding occupation in The Accountant—preceded by the nerds of Midnight Run and Date Night—got us thinking about how characters in mainstream movies nearly always work the same narrow set of gigs.

Aside from such tough-to-land movie occupations as, say, pirate, spy, superhero or astronaut, we’ve had decades of big-screen athletes (Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby), detectives (The Departed, Training Day), prostitutes (My Own Private Idaho, Pretty Woman), chefs (The Big Night, Burnt), teachers (Dead Poets Society, School of Rock), lawyers (A Few Good Men, The Verdict), journalists (All the President’s Men, Spotlight), screenwriters (Adaptation, Sunset Boulevard), doctors and dentists (Gravity, Horrible Bosses) and musicians (Whiplash, countless biopics). Are those the only screen-worthy career choices? Come on, Hollywood.

Of course, certain favorite movie-character jobs have gone the way of the dodo bird, like working in record stores (High Fidelity, Empire Records) or in video stores (Clerks, Be Kind Rewind). But statistics tell us that among the very highest paying careers going right now are anesthesiologists, oral and maxillofacial surgeons, prosthodontists, podiatrists, pharmacists, business-operations managers and optometrists. Ever see movies built around one of those? Name ‘em. We’ll wait.

Still, even if moviemakers might argue that they don’t consider those occupations sexy enough, there are plenty of others we’ve only rarely gotten to see on screen before or since. For instance, George Clooney in Up in the Air makes serious bank for jetting around the U.S., sweeping into big companies, and coolly firing even the most loyal and long-term employees en masse—kind of like Trump on The Apprentice, only with great hair and suits, a vocabulary and a conscience. Joaquin Phoenix in Her is a modern-day Cyrano who ghostwrites letters for the emotionally inarticulate masses; similarly, Joseph Gordon-Levitt writes greeting cards in (500) Days of Summer before he quits to pursue his dream of becoming an architect—a romantic comedy cliché career shared by other characters played by Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle, Adam Sandler in Love Actually and Steve Martin in Housesitter among many others.

Zoe Kazan’s character in What If has a genuinely unique and cool career—she’s a successful animator—and Kristen Wiig whips up pastries for her shop in Bridesmaids, and Tina Fey in Baby Mama runs a Whole Foods-type healthy foods market. A real-life nerd supreme and loner played by Jesse Eisenberg launches a zillion-dollar social media platform in The Social Network. The best career of any movie character ever, though? Hands down, the one played on screen by John Huston, Alanis Morissette, George Burns, Whoopi Goldberg, Val Kilmer and Morgan Freeman: God.

We’re available.

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