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What Movies Teach Us About Work-Life Balance

Can you really have it all? These celluloid classics serve up some surprising solutions to some age-old dilemmas

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by Fred Cohn

Well-Being
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Baby Boom (1987) Manhattan workaholic J.C. Wiatt (Diane Keaton) vows never to let kids interrupt her career. That is, until she somehow inherits a baby. (Could happen!) The minute her boss accidentally sits on a baby bottle, you know J.C.’s hope of juggling parenthood and a management-consulting career is doomed. But when she moves to a farmhouse in Vermont and starts her own gourmet baby-food business, she discovers that you can have it all: motherhood, a thriving business, and the love of an unrealistically dreamy local veterinarian.

The big reveal: J.C.: “I’m not the tiger lady any more. I’ve got a crib in my office and a mobile over my desk--and I really like that.”

His Girl Friday (1940) You’d think ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) had newsprint in her veins, especially when she drinks with the boys and yammers out words like an assault rifle fires bullets. But she wants to give up her career and settle down (in Albany!) with her dull insurance-guy fiancé. Editor-in-chief (and ex-husband) Walter Burns is determined to lure her back into the newspaper biz--and into his arms. Spoiler alert: he’s Cary Grant. Guess which path she chooses.

The conflict, in a nutshell: WALTER: “I know what quitting would mean to you. It would kill you...You’re a newspaperman!” HILDY: “That’s why I’m quitting. I want to go someplace where I can be a woman.”

See also: How to Strike Your Best Work-Life Balance

The Closet (2001) Nebbishy straight accountant François Pignon (Daniel Auteuil) is such a bore his son won’t speak to him and his company wants to can him. But then he hits upon a flamboyant ploy: he circulates a doctored photo of himself, wearing bare-bottom chaps and canoodling with another guy. Now he’s the token office gay--and everyone’s fave employee. His toothsome colleague Mlle. Bertrand (Michèle Laroque) is onto his ruse, but that’s cool: now she thinks he’s kinda cute.

Tough talk: MLLE BERTRAND: “For six years I saw you as a dullard, with no brawn or brains, no balls, nothing.”

Cedar Rapids (2001) Insurance salesman Tim Lippe thinks small, on the job and off: he seems content with his go-nowhere gig and occasional tumbles in the hay with his former 7th grade teacher. But when he heads to the titular Big City for a convention, a ragtag group of colleagues (and a good-hearted hooker, natch) help him shed his inhibitions and open his eyes to new life possibilities. He returns home as the head of his own insurance company — and kind of a stud!

Take-Home Wisdom: TIM: “I got beat up, and I got completely blotto on drugs and alcohol, and I befriended a prostitute. It was awesome.”

The Devil Wears Prada (2006) Is life at the top worth it? Miranda Priestley (Meryl Streep), editor-in-chief of Runway magazine and Czarina of the fashion world, enthralls her assistant, fledgling journalist Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway). But man, is she scary! Andy succumbs to the glittery seduction of Miranda’s realm, but eventually ditches the mag, gets a job on a gritty “real-news” paper (remember those?) and maybe even salvages her relationship with down-to-earth, labradoodle-eyed boyfriend Nate.

Balance be damned: ANDY: What if I don’t want this? MIRANDA: Oh don’t be silly--everyone wants this. Everyone wants to be us.

Up In The Air (2009) Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is happily living in a work/life-balance dystopia, spending his life flying cross-country and firing people. But then he falls hard for his female counterpart, a high-powered businesswoman, and realizes there’s more to life than one-night romps and frequent-flyer miles. Too bad she turns out to be married. But he’s George Clooney, so let’s not worry about him.

Moment of Epiphany: RYAN: “How much did they pay you to give up on your dreams?”

See also: Live a Little: 5 Steps To Better Work-Life Balance

Vertigo (1958) Talk about letting a job take over your life: John "Scotty" Ferguson (James Stewart), a police detective sidelined by his fear of heights, gets hired to tail a mysterious blonde (Kim Novak) around the streets of San Francisco. It's a work assignment that, in true Hitchcock fashion, leads to murder, madness and a freaky, life-defining obsession.

Job talk: MADELEINE: “And what do you do, John?” JOHN: “Wander about.” MADELEINE: “Oh well, that's a good occupation.”

Horrible Bosses (2011) We don't recommend this, but if you really want to achieve work/life balance, you could always whack your boss. Three beleaguered buddies all work for bosses so odious that the only solution seems to be murder. Of the three, Dale is convinced he has it the worst: he’s assistant to a dentist (Jennifer Aniston) who dresses up as a dominatrix and blackmails him into sex. Hands off, Jen! Turnaround is fair play: DALE: “I'm going to take a two-week-long, very expensive holiday with my fiancée. Then I'm going to return to a nice, rape-free workplace.”

8 1/2 (1963) Director Guido Anselmi can’t seem to get to work and start filming his latest project. Maybe it’s because he’s got too much of his life around him: his wife, his mistress, his leading lady and the usual Fellini assortment of freaks, frauds, and big-breasted women. But as his memories and fantasies unfold, we begin to realize that the movie he wants to make is the very movie we’re watching. Work=Life!

Moment of epiphany, pt. 2: GUIDO: “All the confusion of my life... has been a reflection of myself! Myself as I am, not as I'd like to be.”

Working Girl (1988) With her outer-borough accent and her night-school degree, secretary Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) sits at the bottom of the totem pole at the Manhattan financial firm of Petty Marsh. But Tess uses a combination of brains and bodaciousness to outmaneuver her snake-in-the-grass boss Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver), climb to the top--and grab Katharine’s snazzy beau Han Solo, er, Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) while she’s at it.

The Secret of Her Success: TESS: “I have a head for business and a bod for sin. Is there anything wrong with that?”

Photo credits: Baby Boom Diane Keaton and baby, 1987 Credit: United Artists/Courtesy Everett Collection His Girl Friday, 1940 Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell Credit: Courtesy Everett Collection The Closet (aka Le Placard), 2001 From left: Daniel Auteuil (and in photograph), Michele Laroque, (showing photograph) Credit: Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection Cedar Rapids, 2011 Ed Helms (in front of insurance sign) Credit: Zade Rosenthal/Fox Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection The Devil Wears Prada, 2006 Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway Credit: 20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection Up In The Air, 2009 From left: Anna Kendrick, George Clooney Credit: Dale Robinette/DreamWorks Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection Vertigo, 1958 Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Kim Novak, James Stewart Credit: Mary Evans/Paramount Pictures/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection Horrible Bosses, 2011 From left: Charlie Day, Jennifer Aniston Credit: John P. Johnson/Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection 8 ½, 1963 From left: Marcello Mastroianni, Rossella Falk, Anouk Aimee (white headwrap), Caterina Boratto, Madeleine Lebeau Credit: Courtesy Everett Collection Working Girl, 1988 Melanie Griffith Credit: Mary Evans/20th Century Fox/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection