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Review: 'Hard Times: Lost On Long Island' A Narrow, Insubstantial Look At Unemployment

Television
by Kevin Jagernauth
July 9, 2012 10:02 AM
10 Comments
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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.

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10 Comments

  • Kay | February 12, 2014 10:00 PMReply

    The lack of empathy in this comments section is astounding.

  • Randa | December 16, 2012 1:29 PMReply

    Previous comment was computer error.

  • Randa | December 16, 2012 1:16 PMReply

    I could be wrong but you seem like a snob. You come across as a person belonging to the "pull up your boot straps" school of thought. Until your have been in the situation of a that can't find a job, no contacts, no extended family to l end a hand. Until you have beenin the deep hole

  • Sally | August 22, 2012 7:01 PMReply

    The reality is many of us don't live in upper middle class neighborhoods such as those featured in the documentary. Unfortunately, many people suffer from wanting the big house, the very expensive car, etc....I know many people in our small SW Florida town who have had to have foreclosed on their home and literally downsized to much, much smaller living space. Unfortunately, all I got from the movie was that they wanted to continue having the "American Dream" and wanting to continue living in their upper middle class neighborhood but never got anything that said, "Maybe I am living beyond my means and need to move." People in our society want to have the "American Dream" and yet someone hasn't told them that they maybe simply cannot afford it. What about storing up money when things like losing your job come up........maybe they used that up all ready but frankly I admire those people that I know whom are willing to take just about anything now in order to put food on their table and living life with contentment even if it means not living in a big fancy house or having a very expensive car.

  • John | August 17, 2012 1:05 PMReply

    The writer and Annie here have a serious mean streak, and probably don't know it. Pity Party, my butt. Concentrate instead on younger people? There's that age discrimination again. I'm one of those who is highly trained and unemployed for three years. Judging by hiring preferences now I may never be employed again, very much like millions of others like me over 50. And Annie, if you're in your 20's, you've got 40 years left to get things right. I'm 57, about to lose my home, and I have a student loan too, from that Master's degree that was supposed to make me more valuable to employers. And if you're 57, you don't have 40 years left to save yourself. Or your wife. And anything you tried to build for her over the years. I didn't get married to put her in a poor house. Young people should know that everything changes over time. They have substantial reason to hope. But if you don't have time, then you're where we are. And that deserves respect.

  • Matt | September 13, 2012 8:24 PM

    John in response to your post I am saddened to hear of your unfortunate circumstances. As one of the younger people you mentioned I cannot directly relate to your situation, however, understand that we are also confronted with serious life altering problems due to the great recession. I am currently 28 and graduated from a law school ranked in the 70’s in the top 30% of my class in 2011 and have been searching for a position as an attorney ever since. I was working at a firm as an intern with strong hopes of obtaining an associate position until the firm collapsed under financial difficulties. Hard to believe that it was six months ago now and I have applied to hundred of positions without hearing a response, including paralegal and legal secretary positions (I have also applied to a variety of positions in other fields and in other states). Many of my colleagues are in similar circumstances and overall it has adversely affected every facet of my life, not to mention the stress from the $165,000 I owe in law school loans. At the moment I live at home with my mom working a part time job in retail to eat and contribute what little I can. I have much respect for the burdens you face and all you stand to lose. I understand what you are saying and in fact, hope is the only thing that maintains my adamant efforts. Still, nothing seems to desensitize my fear that I will never have a wife, kids, or own my own home with the direction things are going. I guess what I’m trying to say is that although I’m coming from a different perspective; I too understand the pain the recession has caused.

  • Annie | August 14, 2012 3:01 AMReply

    I wish Levin would have concentrated on the thousands of younger generations who will probably NEVER buy a house, who start their young adult life in debt due to student loans. We and others younger than me will never get a taste of the American dream as we know it. I was very disappointed that he didn't even touch on those subjects. But that's pretty typical coming from a greedy, self-centered baby boomer.

    Why should I feel sympathy for a bunch of greedy baby boomers that used to work in the financial sector? Get a real job! How about interviewing teachers, policemen, nurses, doctors...people that do real work helping other people. I'm pretty certain that Levin could have found some of those people to interview. I could care less that some mortgage banker on Wall St. lost his job and his house. Those people and who they represent are to blame for this mess we're in now and I'm almost willing to bet, that probably half or more of those people in the film voted Republican. Once again baby boomers putting their self interest above everything else.

    It's interesting that the silent generation implemented public policies to help their children move into the middle class and yet when the reigns were handed over to the baby boomers, they were more concerned with lining their own pockets than with helping future generations. This movie is a typical self-centered view for baby boomers by a baby boomer. Once again, the generations who have been cheated out of their stab at the American Dream aren't even taken into consideration. As if our story doesn't matter.

    My hope is that my generation and those after me take a more community approach in implementing public policy. Eventually, the baby boomers will die off and we'll be rid of this greedy, self-serving attitude that sadly rules our political system today.

  • Bill | July 11, 2012 3:26 AMReply

    Levittown, upper middle class? That's a bit of a stretch. It is nice enough, but pretty modest by most standards. Unless you're from Calcutta.

  • Rich registered representative | July 10, 2012 2:51 AMReply

    Why don't these idiot morons have non-qualified accounts setup that invest in municipal bond funds? That would be something that could be used for an emergency fund to help the through hardship. A job is horse crap anyway. Why be on a w-2 instead of being on a 1099? You write off more and you'll have e chance to be a part of the 1%. Wake up morons!

  • Mel | July 22, 2012 3:03 PM

    You sir, are a jackass.

    I love the whole "these people are morons for not making proper investments" comment. You assume that everyone knows how to do this. Not only that, you also assume that they didn't already use that money up while they were put of work or so many years. We aren't talking about 6 months out of work. We are talking about YEARS out of work.

    It is this same attitude that has everyone so riled up right now. People like you seem to forget that if the middle class fails, you fail too. Here's hoping that nothing like what is happening to these poor people happens to you.

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