This was the final American International Pictures production before its merger with Filmways.
Jane (Susan Saint James), Elaine (Jane Curtin), and Louise (Jessica Lange) are suburbanites in Eugene, Oregon. These three women, friends since high school, are currently all struggling with money.
Jane is divorced, trying to cope with the man she is dating, Robert (Fred Willard), her newly single father (Eddie Albert), who moves in with Jane after his wife leaves him for another woman, and her young children, who need dental work. Jane learns she is pregnant, which makes Robert unhappy since both he and Jane are nearly broke.
Elaine's husband, an architect, has left her for a younger woman. He has also left her with no money, no credit cards, and lots of bills, all of which are very overdue, leading to a scene with a man at the power company (Garrett Morris). Depressed, she gets drunk and her car is pulled over by police officer Jack (Dabney Coleman). Elaine makes a pass at him, trying to get out of the ticket. When he accepts, then reveals he is married, Elaine smacks him with her purse. She makes it clear that if she is arrested by Jack, her one phone call will be to his wife.
Louise owns an antiques store. Unfortunately, it's not a very successful operation, so she is always accepting funds from her veterinarian husband (Richard Benjamin) to keep the store open. While they are in bed one evening, in the early process of making love, the doorbell rings. Louise is served a court order and learns her husband plans on suing her to force her into bankruptcy to wipe away the enormous debt she has incurred.
The women become desperate. Elaine even tries a yard sale to raise money, selling her husband's possessions, including his deodorant. With nowhere else to turn, Jane, Elaine and Louise notice a "money ball" at the mall, filled with cash, and hatch a scheme to pull off a daring robbery by land and by sea.
At the peak of their woes, Elaine visits the local mall, where an acquaintance (Cathryn Damon) has coaxed her into helping out with staging a community pageant. Elaine stares at a large, clear ball soon due to hold thousands of dollars in a giant cash "give away" and formulates the idea of stealing the money. She calls Jane and Louise to the mall, where they scheme to steal the money by drilling a hole beneath the ball and sucking out as much cash as possible with a high-powered vacuum, then escaping via the river behind the mall.
Despite getting caught by officer Jack in the act of stealing items needed for the heist, Elaine again manages to sweet-talk her way out of being taken to jail. On the evening of the heist, each woman has an unexpected distraction, but finally find their way to the mall. Jane and Louise go to work beneath the cash ball while Elaine readies herself to throw the switch to the mall's lighting controls, aiding their escape. Unfortunately, a minor occurrence nearly causes mall security to notice the noise caused by Jane and Louise stealing the money. With no other way to distract the guards and shoppers, Elaine begins to rant about the high cost of living and how so many things cost "the shirt off your back -- and even THAT'S not enough!" She begins an impromptu striptease, exposing her bosom to the crowd.
An indoor light pole falls directly into the ball, sending cash flowing out into the mall, driving people into a frenzy to collect it. During the uproar above, Jane and Louise make their escape to the river with two large trash bags filled with cash, only to have their canoe tip over when Louise stands up. They both fall in, and Louise can't swim, leaving Jane to decide to save the cash or her friend. She saves Louise and the two bags float away.
Hours later, the sun is rising and both Jane and Louise are still on the bank of the river, crestfallen over the loss of the money, joined by Elaine, wrapped in a blanket. The three begin to argue, but Louise notices a bag floating by and all three of them dive in after it.
At the film's end, Jane has married Robert and gotten her father a condo in a senior's complex; Louise reopens her store and takes back her husband, whom she'd left; and Elaine begins dating the officer, with enough secret money to bring her back to the lifestyle she'd been accustomed to.
Robert Kaufman had written the script in 1971-1972, and Kaufman (and then later with Jere Henshaw) had 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., and Universal Pictures, all interested in the project if he could land major stars. Kaufman and Henshaw could not get the movie made until Henshaw got hired at American International Pictures as executive senior vice president in charge of production. The pair first made Love at First Bite, this success gave them the go ahead to make How to Beat the High Co$t of Living with younger, lesser-known names.
Most of the film was shot in and around Eugene, Oregon. Eugene was chosen because they needed an indoor mall next to a river. The mall used for filming was the Valley River Center, situated next to the Willamette River. The budget for the project was $4.75 million with a 42-day shooting schedule. Filming began on September 5, 1979 and wrapped up in late October.
While filming an outdoor scene in Eugene, a middle-aged man drove by in a car and yelled, "Jane, you ignorant slut!," in reference to Curtin and Dan Aykroyd doing their Point/Counterpoint segment on Saturday Night Live, and the crew cracked up laughing.
Curtin and Saint James who would go on to star together in the sitcom Kate & Allie.Susan Saint James as Jane
Jane Curtin as Elaine
Jessica Lange as Louise
Dabney Coleman as Jack
Richard Benjamin as Albert
Fred Willard as Robert
Eddie Albert as Max
Cathryn Damon as Natalie