John Stepek is the son of a retired second
generation family business owner. He lives in London and works as a freelance journalist and scriptwriter.
Sabrina, directed by Sydney Pollack, 1995
It's tough being the ruthless CEO of a billion-dollar family business. When Linus Larabee's (Harrison Ford) playboy younger brother David (Greg Kinnear) gets engaged to Elizabeth Tyson (Lauren Holly), heir to the wealthy Tyson family business, Linus's planned merger between the two companies seems certain to go ahead.
But when Sabrina Fairchild (Julia Ormond), the shy daughter of the family chauffeur returns from a long stay in Paris, transformed into a sophisticated, attractive young woman, the commitment-phobic David's affections start to wander. Determined that nothing will threaten the merger, Linus plans to seduce Sabrina, then dump her when both wedding and deal have gone through. However, the tycoon finds himself falling for Sabrina's guileless manner, and has to confront some uncomfortable facts about his life – or lack of it. But will it stop him going ahead with his plan?
Recently reissued on video in the UK, Sabrina (a remake of Billy Wilder's 1954 original) is about growing up. Sabrina's return from Paris to fulfil a lifelong crush on David is the catalyst that forces the three main characters to take control of their lives. Although it fails in many ways as a piece of entertainment, the depiction of family business relationships will be familiar to anyone working with families.
Linus Larabee is the workaholic older child. Burdened by responsibility, he resents his brother's lavish lifestyle, which is funded by Linus's hard work. Like many heirs, Linus has drifted into the business without considering alternatives. "I do what my dad did – he did what his dad did...I never chose." His resentment of the business doesn't stem from a hatred of the job – he relishes the cut and thrust of the business world. But he doesn't feel as if it was his choice to enter the business, and so doesn't feel in control of his own destiny.
He also suffers from the low self-esteem that comes from never leaving the family unit. Linus has done a good job of running his father's company, developing it into a billion dollar corporation – an impressive achievement. However, he cannot acknowledge this, seeing it simply as a legacy – "I've been following in footsteps all my life."
David Larabee is a perpetual student and playboy. He suffers the insecurities of the younger child overshadowed by a dominant elder sibling. He says of the business: "What do they need me for? Linus is there." David also has low self-esteem, arising from his realisation that he doesn't contribute much to the family business. However, his comfortable lifestyle strips him of the motivation to do anything about this.
This sibling relationship is kept static by the brothers' roles in the workplace. David will always be the young feckless brother and Linus the responsible older one while they remain in the artificial family unit that the business represents.
Sharing the business with their mother is an added complication. Like many FBs, the children have essentially taken over, but their parents still play a role in the business. In so doing, they maintain and reinforce their parental role, making it more difficult for their children to grow up.
These observations about family business life are pertinent and frequently witty, and if the film had concentrated on Linus's and David's relationship, it could have been very entertaining. Unfortunately, the central love story lets it down. There is a surprisingly fine line between guileless innocence and obsessed sociopathy, and Ormond's Sabrina goes right over it.
Her creepy, passive-aggressive manner, particularly when she first meets David on her return from Paris, is more suited to a stalker than a romantic heroine. There is little chemistry between her and Harrison Ford, and the speed at which their relationship develops is unconvincing.
Also, the US cultural naivety grates on European ears. Paris is a wonderful city, but after hearing Sabrina reminisce about it in hushed tones for the 19th time, you'll be wishing she'd stayed there. And when she demonstrates how far travelling has broadened her horizons by introducing Linus to North African food, you have to wonder – if the pinnacle of Sabrina's personal development is eating chicken Moroccan-style, it's not surprising that she's back stalking the Larrabees.
If the tone had been pitched more at screwball comedy than at gentle romance, this could have been an entertaining and perceptive film. However, the heavy-handed direction and poorly developed central characters leave the viewer frustrated. There are glimpses of a better film underneath, but overall Sabrina is a disappointment.