If women who looked as one of a kind as Whoopi Goldberg could even get an appointment in the personnel office of a Wall Street corporation, I’d say it was a great day for sisterhood. Never mind. In The Associate, Goldberg plays Laurel Ayres, a brilliant financial analyst at a big Wall Street corporation who finds her dreadlocked head squashed up against the glass ceiling as her conniving rival (Tim Daly) maneuvers over her for promotion. Insulted, she quits and sets up on her own, only to discover that the big boys prefer to do business exclusively with other big boys. So she punts: In a moment of crucial negotiation, Laurel invents a powerful partner, named (after a liquor bottle) ”Robert S. Cutty.” And suddenly, business booms.
The Associate is the blah-est title possible for a shrewd little comedy that picks up the ”don’t just get revenge, get justice!” war cry of The First Wives Club and hustles it into the workplace. Conservatively directed by Grumpy Old Men’s Donald Petrie and written by White Fang’s Nick Thiel, it doesn’t have the polish or zing of First Wives, and the big laughs are more uncontrolled. But in its smaller-scale way, it’s just as zeitgeist astute and just as funny. Better yet, the role of Laurel — a forceful woman who can outplay the men — sits wonderfully well on the hard-to-fit comedian-actress.
Goldberg is helped here by appealing costars. As a chauvinist pig, Daly gets slyly funnier as the plot twists. Bebe Neuwirth puts on the full vamp. Lainie Kazan is a crack-up as a big-haired, vulgar gossip columnist. And Dianne Wiest is fascinating as Laurel’s super-competent, mousy assistant. You won’t recognize the Bullets Over Broadway theater diva she once was under her lumpy sweaters, but that only makes this odd choice of role more touching. In the relaxed, trusting relationship between assistant and boss, you can’t help but enjoy a glimpse of what the kick-ass new world order might be if Whoopi ran the boardroom. B