The latest employment numbers in the United States came out on Friday, and they weren't great. In the month of June, a paltry 80,000 new jobs were created, with the national unemployment figure standing at 8.2%, more or less highlighting an economy that has made uncertainty the only thing you can reliably count on. There is a lot to talk about when it comes to those who are struggling to find work in the current landscape, but as you might tell by the title of Cannes- and Emmy-winning director Marc Levin's "Hard Times: Long On Long Island," his focus is on a very narrow and select group of people looking for work. And while the decision to try and sharpen the narrative makes sense from the perspective of wrangling such a wide-reaching subject, in execution, the documentary winds up touching on a number of relevant issues, but develops very few of them.
'Hard Times' begins on a note of despair and then lets it continually ring out in a mostly unwavering tone, for much of the all-too-brief, less than one-hour running time. The film centers on a handful of people from the (upper) middle class city of Levittown, New York, most of whom are in their middle age or older, all struggling to find work. Among them is the almost comically unlucky Alan Fromm who was at the World Trade Center when it was first bombed and during 9/11, was struck by lightning and was on the LIRR when Colin Ferguson murdered six people. There's Nick Puccio who was laid off by an asset management firm owned by Lehman Brothers in the wake of their collapse a few years back. There's husband and wife Anne and Mel Strauss who have lost their public relations and finance jobs respectively and a finally, there's young, attractive, married couple Heather and David Hartstein who have fallen on hard times after she lost her teaching position, and he saw a substantial decrease in patients at his chiropratic practice.
Levin uses the microcosm of these people and their difficulties to weave an already familiar elegy, one that has been used time and again over the past four or five years, to talk about the decline of the American dream, and how the rose-tinted post-war era of the '50s eroded into an era of bankruptcy, foreclosure and eviction. Using a rather lazy structuring device that weaves together interviews and intercuts them with a battery of increasingly depressing statistics, Levin makes it abundantly clear that There Is A Problem. But we knew this going in already, so what else is there?
Well, there are the stories of these individuals themselves, who bravely open their personal pain to the camera, but with all due sensitivity, their stories are not that unique. This writer has seen more than one friend go through phases of unemployment lasting as long as the folks here, and while that recognition of the problem allows the viewer to immediately connect to the plight of the subjects in the movie, 'Hard Times' doesn't go far enough. One of the issues floated (and again, one of many that is raised, and then disappears) is that of age discrimination; of older potential workers not being fairly considered for jobs. It's an interesting point, and certainly one worthy of at least talking about a bit further, but Levin lets the accusation slide (though this may be perhaps due to the fact that the unemployment rate among youth generally tends to skew much higher than the national average). Levin also peppers his film with rhetoric from both the right and left wing via news clips -- usually polarized between "the unemployed are lazy" or "the government isn't doing enough" -- as some attempt to frame the movie under a national context, but it's half-baked at best. With no interviews with politicians, employers, bankers, financial people or even members of his subjects' extended families or friends who are seeing them live through this experience, Levin's film is so specifically confined, that it becomes blind to its own deficiencies.
'Hard Times' is, at best, an anecdotal look at unemployment, and we suppose a bit of a pity party for anyone going through a similiar situation at the moment. And that's not to diminish the very real issues Alan, Nick, Anne, Mel, Heather and David face in the movie -- with stress, dyfunction, depression all hitting them in various ways -- but as material for a film, even one that clocks in at a short fifty-three minutes, it's a bit thin. One wonders why Levin didn't invest more effort in creating a more layered exploration of employment, while still keeping the personal focus. The film feels like it ran out of money or Levin ran out of interest halfway through -- or simply didn't get enough footage and ran up against a deadline. Either way, 'Hard Times' tackles a serious subject, and one that will be a key factor in this year's elections (with four more employment reports coming, including one four days before the election -- marking the first time a president faces the prospect of re-election with the unemployment rate over 8%), without the depth it deserves. [C]
"Hard Times: Lost On Long Island" airs tonight on HBO at 9 PM.