'Efficiency' gives business the business

November 06, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

This sort of thing never happens in America, no siree. But, the Australian movie, "The Efficiency Expert" is about what happens when a faltering business hires an outsider and he comes in and examines the place and makes recommendations and they change everything and guess what happens? Total collaspe! As I say, I have no familiarity with such a process, but the movie has a weird way of feeling kind of right-on. One thing it gets wonderfully is how a workplace -- in this case a moccasin factory -- becomes a hermetically-sealed world, a strange collection of traditions and mores and processes that have long since lost any connection with logic and yet endure as if they're graven in bedrock. They can't be changed, they've sunk into the DNA of the building.

Anyway, the great Anthony Hopkins is the E.E., and, as usual, he's quite compelling. Brisk and dry, he understands business in the abstract, he has the big picture, he knows profits from losses and downsides from upsides. He actually knows who John Maynard Keynes was. He probably went to Harvard. The only problem is those damned phantasms in the hallways, these bloated, bleating, kibitzing blobs of flesh who insist on going to lunch at the wrong time, refuse to sign in or sign out and spend entirely too much time in the bathroom: you know, the workers.

Actually, the film is set right on the cusp of what is the quintessential modern business dilemma: how do managers "modernize" and stay fluid enough to meet new economic conditions, without ruthlessly trashing the squalid minions whose sweat and blood have made the joint a go in the first place? Here's the answer: There isn't an answer.

The movie's quaintest stroke is to pretend there is. Its conceit is that the prim Hopkins, while essentially brought in to plan and execute a massacre, finds himself for the first time moved by the people whom he is betraying. Their ways are so halting and childlike, it's difficult not to love them, and when they ask him to join their slot-car team one Saturday afternoon, he agrees and meets his own inner child.

A couple of banal subplots aside, it's a lovely, moving little fable, but it's exactly that fabulous part of it that keeps it from being believable. In real life, of course, the masters on the top floor always make the hard decision: they opt for the cash over the folks, because that's their job, that's how they see the world. "The Efficiency Expert" has fun pretending that people are more important than profits.

'The Efficiency Expert'

Starring Anthony Hopkins.

Directed by Mark Joffe.

Released by Miramax.

Unrated.

** 1/2

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