“Want to test your marriage’s weak spots? Add one recession and subtract two jobs.”
That voiceover line establishes tension early on box-office topper Gone Girl, which grossed $38 million this weekend—a personal record for director David Fincher, who adapted Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel of the same name.
Ben Affleck, who plays a laid-off journalist suspected of murdering his wife in the film, is no stranger to characters whose motivations involve money. His portrayal of Gone Girl‘s Nick Dunne is the latest in a string of roles in which the pursuit of financial comfort (or the lack of it) drives motives and actions: There’s also the white-collar-turned-blue-collar worker in The Company Men, the rich and corrupt broker in Boiler Room, and the single father struggling to raise his daughter in Jersey Girl.
In these and other films, the economy and its discontents share the spotlight with Affleck. We mined the actor’s filmography for the ways in which these recurring themes raise questions—and, in some cases, offer insights—about money, job security, and work-life balance. Here are 6 lessons gleaned from Affleck’s oeuvre (the hits as well as the dogs).
Gone Girl: Nothing Stresses a Marriage Like Money Trouble
Without revealing any spoilers, it’s safe to say Gone Girl is a story born of the recession.
Nick and Amy Dunne, onetime New York “it” couple, experience “his-and-her layoffs” from their magazine-writing jobs in the city, forcing them to relocate to a quiet (fictional) Missouri town.
Their marriage disintegrates as financial tensions build, in part because of how emasculated Nick feels borrowing money from Amy’s trust fund—and how annoyed Amy feels watching Nick spend it.
While the whodunnit that follows is hardly typical of most American spouses, the Dunnes share one thing in common with the average U.S. couple: disagreements about finances.
When MONEY surveyed more than 1,000 married adults this summer, we found that money is the biggest cause of conflict for couples, with 70% of respondents saying they argue about finances—above chores and even sex. In fact, 60% of those surveyed said they check their bank balances more often than they get frisky in the bedroom.
Improving communication with your spouse about money is not something easily fixed overnight, but there are a few steps you can take. Take a cue from some real couples who have bettered their financial relationship: Create a fair division of labor when it comes to managing household finances, be conscious of showing appreciation of each other, and bring in a third-party mediator before things get really out of hand.
Boiler Room: Hang Up on That Stockbroker
Though it’s based on the same pump-and-dump penny stock sale scheme that sent New York broker Jordan Belfort to prison, the 2000 film Boiler Room is no The Wolf of Wall Street.
For one thing, the “I am a millionaire” speech Ben Affleck’s character delivers to prospective brokers is the closest the film comes to making wealth—and greed—seem sexy. And unlike Wolf, the movie focuses on the consequences felt by victims of the scam, many of whom were older adults conned out of their life savings over the telephone.
Two big money takeaways from Boiler Room? First, in addition to stressing a relationship, bad communication also makes it harder to protect your family from scams. Harry, one of the film’s fictional victims, might have avoiding losing his money along with his marriage if he had involved his wife in his investment decisions. Likewise, it’s hard to protect vulnerable people in your life—aging parents, for example—if you don’t know how they are managing their money. So, after you sign up for the FTC’s scam alert emails, schedule that tough talk with your folks.
Second, it’s never wise to invest in something you don’t understand—and most people don’t understand penny stocks. Even if outright fraud is not involved, here’s an explanation from MONEY’s Pat Regnier of why you should beware of penny stocks.
The Company Men: To Succeed, You Must Adapt
Another Ben Affleck flick that plays on class and recession themes, The Company Men focuses on the aftermath of mass layoffs at a shipbuilding company.
Affleck’s character, Bobby Walker, must adapt to a blue-collar gig installing drywall with his brother-in-law (played by Kevin Costner) after losing his management job at the company and kissing his six-figure salary goodbye.
Though Walker’s storyline touches on tough experiences that anyone who’s unexpectedly lost a job might recognize, like “humiliating outplacement seminars” and moving in with parents as an adult, an even harder fate is had by Walker’s colleague Phil Woodward. He gets hit not only by downsizing but also ageism, “advised to dye his gray hair and to tweak his résumé to omit any work reference before 1990.”
Which is not to say that anyone facing a job loss should be without hope. First, if the writing is on the wall, prepare yourself by reviewing your company’s exit policy and downloading the professional contacts you’d like to keep to your personal computer or phone.
Second, consider this a chance to remake yourself in a new career, as Affleck’s character eventually did. Just be sure you revise your resume to focus on the transferable skills that are relevant to prospective employers.
The Town: If You Pick the Wrong Bank, You'll Pay
If there’s one takeaway from 2010’s The Town, which Affleck both starred in and directed, it’s to choose your bank wisely.
Affleck’s character, Doug MacRay, robs a nearby bank with his gang and briefly holds hostage (then releases) a bank manager who happens to live in their neighborhood—a dangerous turn of events, since she can help identify them to the police.
Hopefully when you’re picking a bank you’re focused on how to avoid fees, not arrest, but choosing the nearest branch still has consequences. The biggest and most visible banks with brick-and-mortar locations tend to be the ones that charge the highest fees and pay the lowest interest among competitors.
Until MONEY’s 2014 Best Banks in America story comes out on October 31, start evaluating your current bank and decide if you’re ready for a change. If you’re paying ATM fees—or, really, any fees at all—you are probably paying too much.
Jersey Girl: Rich Dad Doesn't Always Beat Poor Dad
Kevin Smith-directed Jersey Girl includes many of the same financial motifs found in other Affleck vehicles, including layoffs and the indignity of going from riches to rags.
But there are a few key distinctions: In this case, when Affleck’s character, Ollie Trinke, loses his job as a glamorous New York publicist, there’s no recession to blame. He is sacked after trashing client Will Smith (who is cast as himself in the film). Though the situation is played for humor, it is set against a somber backdrop; Trinke’s self-destructive behavior is driven by stress following the recent death of his wife, who left him a newborn to care for on his own.
As Trinke adjusts to life in New Jersey, where he’s moved back in with his own father, he must grapple with a tough new job (as a garbage collector) and the even tougher challenge of raising his daughter. When, eventually, he gets the opportunity to return to a PR career in New York, the story gets interesting—and highlights big questions about work-life balance.
Without giving too much away, it’s safe to say one lesson from Jersey Girl is that time with family is precious, and sometimes the best career move you can make is to focus less on your career and more on your kids.
Paycheck: Work With What You've Got
This 2003 film adaptation of the eponymous Philip K. Dick short story might be a tale you can relate to: It follows one man’s quest for justice after receiving a disappointing paycheck.
Yes, there are some differences between the protagonist (Affleck’s Michael Jennings) and most people. He is, after all, a memory-wiped “reverse engineer” who is also reasonably worried about a future-predicting device that threatens to destroy the financial system and cause nuclear war.
But more relevant to the everyman, a key plot point involves Jennings anticipating a $92 million paycheck and instead receiving a envelope full of trinkets—an only slightly exaggerated version of how many people feel looking at their post-tax pay stubs.
If, like Jennings, you find your paycheck isn’t quite what you hoped for, it’s not actually the end of the world. Just as Affleck’s character discovers that the trinkets are worth more than they seem, you might find you’re able to work with what you’ve got if you follow these two simple moves.
First, make sure you are minimizing the taxes you owe to the IRS. Contributing the maximum to your retirement account and taking investment losses when appropriate can help you reduce your taxable income, meaning you’ll fork over less to Uncle Sam at tax time.
Second, consider negotiating for a raise. Since there’s less opportunity to snag pay bumps as workers get older, there’s no time for procrastination on this point.