Review: “Equity” expertly explores work equality; “Miss Sharon Jones!” earns exclamation point

Sharon Jones has enjoyed a second act as a performer after working as a corrections officer at Rikers Island.
Sharon Jones has enjoyed a second act as a performer after working as a corrections officer at Rikers Island.

I’ve never seen Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean stage tragedy, but I love the name: Women Beware Women. That could work as an alternate title for Equity. It’s a smart, suspenseful drama about a handful of women trying to break the glass ceiling on Wall Street, where gendered things like stiletto heels and slinky dresses are still, sometimes, necessary tools they use to prove they can be just one of (or better than) the boys.

Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn plays Naomi, a senior Wall Street investment banker who’s shepherded nine Silicon Valley start-ups to their IPOs over the past five years. She ought to be treated like a rock star. But, big problem: she’s a woman.

Her boss (Lee Tergesen) is leaving the firm, so he’s scouting for a new global chief to hire. He makes it clear to Naomi — based on less-than-spectacular numbers for her last IPO — that the job isn’t likely to be hers. You can’t help thinking that if “Naomi” were “Norman,” things would be different.

Anna Gunn stars in Equity as an investment banker.
Anna Gunn stars in Equity as an investment banker.

Naomi passes similar bad news to her assistant Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas, one of several women who collaborated on the film’s screenplay). Erin really wants a promotion, even though the bank is busy pink-slipping staff. “HR is out there snatching Blackberries,” Naomi explains. “I get that,” Erin counters, “but I’ve been under-compensated two years in a row.”

The third main female character is Samantha (Alysia Reiner, who also contributed to the screenplay). A former college classmate of Naomi’s, Sam works at the U.S. Attorney’s office, investigating white-collar crime — especially things like insider trading. She suspects that the poor performance of Naomi’s last IPO might be connected to Naomi’s lover Michael (James Purefoy), a hedge fund broker at a different division of the same bank; he might be leaking privileged information. Come to think of it, we do see him asking a few too many insider-y questions about the new start-up Naomi wants to snag.

That’s a social media company called Cachet. It’s run by a standard-issue, hipster-sleazebag named Ed (Samuel Roukin). Much of Equity focuses on Naomi and Erin as they tag-team to reel in the latest West Coast start-up, with Ed stonewalling Naomi’s take-charge pitch while caressing the younger, curvier Erin with his eyes.

All’s fair in love and Wall Street. When Naomi finds (the married) Erin canoodling with Ed at the hotel bar, she pulls her subordinate aside not to scold her but to see if Erin can get Ed to sign an indemnity clause that will protect their bank if Cachet craters. “You have to handle him professionally and very, very gently,” Naomi says. (You could see her thriving as the madam of a high-end brothel; business is business.) Likewise, Samantha from the U.S. Attorney’s office knows how to deploy a giggly, girly act to get what she needs from a susceptible male.

But in Equity’s worldview, any small victory is usually met with a commensurate setback or compromise. This is not a naïve, femme-power fable like Working Girl back in 1988. No happy-ending-in-a-corner-office is guaranteed here, which makes it a movie much more of our own time than of the Reagan era.

While I admire Equity — beautifully acted by Gunn and the rest — it takes some shortcuts that can feel too easy, even clichéd. Naomi’s lover Michael might as well wear a neon collar spelling “Sexy Bastard.” Middle-aged workaholic Naomi has no kids, only a pet fish, and she takes out her aggressions sparring with an Everlast punching bag. And I already mentioned that the Cachet CEO is a hipster sleaze. Nothing fatal here; it’s just that a little more nuance might have nudged things up a notch.

The filmmaking has the efficient, sleek clean lines of its corporate environments; form follows function. But the minimalism maybe works against the movie. These characters live in such lux, chilly, monied spaces, it’s sometimes a challenge to relate to them as human beings. While Equity is timely in its look at gender disparity and economic inequality, I wouldn’t blame anyone who feels he or she is well enough aware of this in regular life — and they don’t need to watch a dramatization of it on-screen.

Another strong woman is at the center of Miss Sharon Jones! But the struggles the titular R&B singer faces aren’t corporate. They’re mortal.

A black woman who left South Carolina to create one of those 30-years-in-the-making “overnight success” stories, Jones has anchored a fascinatingly retro career. Look at the cover of any of the albums she’s cut with her backup band, the Dap-Kings, and you’d think they were vintage records from the Sixties and Seventies. There’s a reason Jones is sometimes called the female James Brown, from the raw and impassioned tone of her voice to the unhindered dances she erupts into onstage — though her career is certainly much more financially modest than Brown’s was. (Echoes of Equity there.)

The film shows Jones' fight against pancreatic cancer.
The film shows Jones’ fight against pancreatic cancer.

All that energy is put on hold, and imperiled when she gets a diagnosis: stage II pancreatic cancer. Covering a couple of crucial years in her life, the documentary celebrates her career while chronicling her rounds of chemotherapy as she aims to get back on the road with the guys.

Veteran documentary director Barbara Kopple’s work ranges from 1976’s landmark Harlan County U.S.A. to the Woody Allen doc Wild Man Blues. She gives her movie a rhythm by intercutting dynamic stage footage of Jones in performance with the necessary boredom of the singer’s long convalescence in the home of a friend. Lying in bed, she explains how she measures the day by watching one talk show after the next, a highlight being Ellen. Of course, she’s more than a random media watcher. Eventually, we see her taping an appearance with DeGeneres, as well as performing on Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon’s late-night shows.

The movie isn’t a total valentine. We see Jones’ diva side, exacerbated by her physical weakness. She pitches a fit on learning that her band members don’t want to go to dinner with her one particular evening. “Y’all the only family I got,” she yells before storming out of the studio. It’s quite a mixed musical family — young, old, white, black, Jewish — and she’s their matriarch, trying to get well and get busy. “I’m responsible for everybody’s payroll,” she says. “We gotta get out there!” On the road as well as in this movie, she is sister, mama, friend, provocateur and above all things else, a star who earns the exclamation point in the movie’s title.

Equity. With Anna Gunn, Sarah Megan Thomas, Alysia Reiner, James Purefoy. Directed by Meera Menon. Rated R. 100 minutes. At Tara and Lefont Sandy Springs.

Miss Sharon Jones! A documentary by Barbara Kopple. Unrated. 93 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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