Any devotee of this guilty-pleasure category of films knows to expect a high degree of preposterousness, but even with that, Harold Becker‘s “Malice,” from a script co-written by Aaron Sorkin and Scott Frank, tests the limits. Yet because of the total commitment from the cast, particularly then-nascent superstar Nicole Kidman and a memorably oleaginous Alec Baldwin, this uber-twisty B-movie nonsense is not only ridiculously entertaining, but even manages to make medical-malpractice law seem interesting and to set up its highly improbable central twist as a grand moral quandary. Against the leafy backdrop of a Massachusetts college town that is being haunted by a serial rapist (Gwyneth Paltrow has a small role as one of his victims), newlyweds Tracy and Andy (Kidman and Bill Pullman) are doing up their Victorian Dream House (yuppie trope alert). They rent out a room to hard-partying visiting surgeon Jed (Baldwin), who ends up operating on Tracy, resulting in a massive suit against the hospital when he removes a healthy ovary, leaving her unable to have children. But TWIST! That’s only half the story — literally, there’s still about half a film to go, which involves false rape accusations, murder, revelations about infertility, Anne Bancroft playing Kidman’s mother, cons and double-crosses. It’s really got it all, including, of course, Alec Baldwin hissing what must be the Sorkin-est monologue Sorkin ever Sorkin-ed: “You ask me if I have a God complex? Let me tell you something. I am God.”
“Presumed Innocent” (1990)
As he tired of space-adventuring and punching Nazis as the 1980s came to an end, Harrison Ford found a sort-of groove in making variations on the yuppie-in-peril thriller — Roman Polanski’s “Frantic,” “The Fugitive,” “Firewall,” even the Jack Ryan films and “Air Force One” have traces of the genre in them. “Presumed Innocent,” based on the airport-novel bestseller by proto-Grisham Scott Turow, is at once the purest example of his work in the genre and, in its final twist, a semi-subversion of it. Ford plays Rusty, a high-flying prosecutor who is accused of the murder of his mistress (Greta Scacchi) after she turns up dead, and must fight to clear his name. It’s a classy affair in most respects: Alan J. Pakula directs, “Dog Day Afternoon” genius Frank Pierson writes, John Williams scores, the likes of Brian Dennehy, Raul Julia, John Spencer and young Bradley Whitford and Jeffrey Wright are in the supporting cast. But it’s a little dull with it: attempts to subvert Ford’s image and the occasional bit of nudity can’t quite break it out of the courtroom-thriller genre either. The twist — that Ford’s wife (Bonnie Bedelia) was the killer, but didn’t mean to frame him — is the most interesting thing about the film, both because of how it spins on the usual yuppie-in-peril conceit of the external threat to the happy family unit, and because of the queasy moralizing that comes with it as Ford blames his own adultery for the killing.
The Cahiers du Cinéma crowd are likely gathering their pitchforks and torches at the idea that Michael Haneke could be lumped in with some of the other films on this list. But since his breakout “Funny Games,” a brutal subversion of the home-invasion thriller, Haneke hasn’t been shy with playing with genre conceits that otherwise wouldn’t get anywhere close to the Cannes line-up, and even more than the earlier film, the masterful “Caché” is his answer to the yuppies-in-peril thriller. The premise sees a bourgeoise literary couple Georges and Anne (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) menaced by a series of anonymous videos that show their home observed from the outside. Without an immediate villain or a physical presence, the threat is more oblique and nagging than in most films of this type, but it’s undoubtedly in the same category, leading to fraying in the central relationship and, eventually, a shocking act of violence. But Haneke’s genius is to push the subtext of the genre — that we’re watching a family be punished for their wealth and privilege, and the people that they might have stepped over to attain that — into text, giving a sharp, political edge without ever beating you over the head with it. It’s a mark of the film’s brilliance that, a decade on, that ending still sparks plenty of arguments.
“The Gift” (2015)
Low-key but with a taciturn intelligence lurking under its surface, Joel Edgerton‘s directorial debut displays a lot of the same qualities that make Edgerton himself one of our favorite working actors. It’s squarely in the genre mold, but Edgerton’s grip on the material, and a trio of terrific performances from himself as the menacing outsider Gordo, and Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall as the seemingly perfect couple he targets, elevate the film entirely, finding new textures in even the most familiar of beats. And it functions really well as a modern take on the ’90s staple of the yuppie-in-peril paradigm: like many of the films on this list, a pregnancy plays into the plot (along with the Dream Home, the Dead Pet and the Doomed Best Friend tropes, Starting a Family is a recurring concern in films of this type), as does a designer house and a dark secret from the past. But what makes it feel of a piece with these earlier iterations is that although Gordo is the figure threatening the apparently innocent couple, the film is also coded as a critique of not just the past behavior, but also the current complacency and blithe privilege of the central couple. And there is a strange schadenfreude satisfaction to be gained in watching the uber-tasteful designer ostentation of their lifestyle, which constantly and inescapably cues their financial status and social success, turn as toxic as that koi pond.
“Changing Lanes” (2002)
By the early 2000s, the rash of imperilled yuppie movies was starting to die down a bit, and instead we got some of the more interesting riffs on the subject — slight subversions of what had become pretty standard territory. One of the best of those is Roger Michell‘s “Changing Lanes,” which adds a dash of racial panic and what we’d now call “economic anxiety” to the mix, and is remarkable for the relative even-handedness with which its seesawing moral stakes play out. The young, upwardly mobile white guy here is Ben Affleck‘s ambitious lawyer Banek (basically the platonic essence of “yuppie”), who is en route to file some important documents that will net his company a lot of money, when he gets into a minor traffic collision. The other party is Samuel L. Jackson‘s Gipson, a recovering alcoholic who is on his way to court to fight for access to his children, but when he insists on a time-consuming police report about the accident, Banek drives off, unaware that he has dropped his crucial documentation at the scene. There follows an escalation of tit-for-tat acts of pettiness and revenge between the two men, bringing each to the verge of entirely ruining the other’s life. In a more standard take, this would continue to devolve into all-out violence, but, call it millennial optimism or whatever, Michell’s film instead takes a refreshingly different tack as the two men pull back from the brink, each as horrified at what the battle has revealed about himself, and the way he has been living his life, as at his adversary.
Once you start identifying yuppie-in-peril movies as a subgenre, a whole lot more spring to mind. However, many of them, like “Sleeping With The Enemy” with Julia Roberts, “The Temp” with Lara Flynn Boyle, “Fear” with Mark Wahlberg and Reese Witherspoon, right up to “Derailed” with Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston and the recent “Knock Knock” with Keanu Reeves, range from meh to absolute pants, so we left them out. There are plenty of thrillers and erotic thrillers that share some DNA with this type of film, though, and many of those are quite good, from Glenn Close and Jeff Bridges vehicle “Jagged Edge“; to terrific Nicole Kidman-starring B-movie “Dead Calm“; to hysterically dumb but kind-of fun “Final Analysis” with Richard Gere, Kim Basinger and Uma Thurman; to Steven Soderbergh‘s 2013 “Side Effects.”
As mentioned above, we could have included any of several other David Fincher films, many of which include some sort of critique of the dissipation and alienation of consumerist, affluent lifestyles, “The Game” being probably the most on-the-nose there. And like “Presumed Innocent,” above, the airport thriller gave us several more potential inclusions, of which “The Firm” is one of the better ones. Then there are several in which the peril is less actual than moral, or in which the protagonists have it all but can’t help desiring more, like “Indecent Proposal,” “Deception” and “Consenting Adults.” And while this has been in the past, almost by definition, a mostly white subgenre, aside from the very good “Changing Lanes,” there were a few attempts to work in race issues, such as “Lakeview Terrace,” which also stars Samuel L. Jackson as a cop who harasses a mixed-race couple. It’s not very good, though it’s a masterpiece compared to the more recent “No Good Deed,” which thoroughly wastes Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson. Any others you feel were worthy of mention in this surprisingly populous subgenre? Shout them out below.