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WHEN WHOOPI Goldberg crashes into the glass ceiling as a financial analyst, she quits her fancy New York brokerage job and sets up shop for herself.

And that's how she winds up -- all by herself. No secretary, no clients, and very quickly, no money. Foolish girl. She thought intelligence, drive and expertise were enough. She took too long to realize that she needed one more thing to succeed: a white guy.

"The Associate" plays for laughs women's struggle and, all too often, their failure to be taken seriously in the boys' club that passes for American business. It attempts to stifle the power of sexism, using the simple language and symbolism that pass for conscience and commentary in Hollywood.

Goldberg's character, Laurel Ayres, builds a booming business around the fallacy that she has an associate, Robert S. Cutty. (She took the name from a bottle of booze.) As she presents corporate chiefs with her investment and merger advice, they automatically project her ideas onto the invisible man. Any woman who has shopped for hours for the perfect mother-in-law gift, only to see her husband thanked profusely for it, will know how this goes.

Director Donald Petrie gives his star full rein with her role as a savvy go-getter, and wisely uses his gimmick sparingly. Heading into the climax, he dresses Goldberg briefly as an older white man who bears a passing resemblance to Thomas Jefferson. It's great makeup. Until she starts talking, it's nearly impossible to tell that Cutty's face is a mask. But beyond the entertainment of seeing the disguise, the movie doesn't need Cutty any more than Laurel did.

That's because Laurel has Sally on her side. Sally, played by the always wonderful Dianne Wiest, starts the movie as secretary to Laurel's devious co-worker Frank (Tim Daly from "Wings"). She is a mirror to the sexism that keeps thwarting Laurel: Laurel, at first, treats Sally with as much condescension as the big boys treat her.

But Sally is more human than Laurel is and she reaches out to help. It isn't an entirely altruistic gesture -- Sally knows she'll go nowhere hitched to Frank's glowering star. She is looking for a way out and up, before it's too late.

"The Associate" will seem familiar to anyone who saw Melanie Griffith in "Working Girl," the story of a secretary who used her feminine wiles and plain old moxie to promote her business smarts. The movies differ in one refreshing way: At the end of "Working Girl," Griffith not only got the job, she got the guy (Harrison Ford), which is what some people think every woman really wants.

In "The Associate," the women also get something besides the job: They get even.

Sometimes, that is more than enough.

The Associate

Rating:** 1/2 When a black woman pretends she has a white man as her partner in an investment firm, business booms. Starring Whoopi Goldberg, Dianne Wiest and Eli Wallach. Directed by Donald Petrie. Rated PG-13, opening today in at area movie theaters.

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