Saturday, February 25, 2012

CLOCKWATCHERS 1997

It boggles the mind (an admitted, in the words of All About Eve’s Addison DeWitt, “dull cliché,” since I don’t really know what a mind boggled is) how few people know about this, one of my absolute favorite workplace comedies.

Predating Ricky Gervais’ The Office (2001) and the cult film Office Space (1999) by several years, Clockwatchers is alarmingly unheard of, unknown, and rarely, if ever, talked about. Yet I’ve viewed it many times and it never once ceases to make me laugh out loud at the characters, dialog and situations. How can this be? Clockwatchers is the most wickedly perceptive comedy-of-white-collar-manners I’ve ever seen. I’m aware that my personal taste in movies can be a little bit off-beat, and know that what I personally consider to be funny tends to fall somewhere between the overbroad and the imperceptibly subtle; but even fans of Robert Altman (whose finely-observed comedies of behavior this film most recalls) don’t know about this movie.
Toni Collette as Iris 
Parker Posey as Margaret
Lisa Kudrow as Paula / Camille La Plante
Alanna Ubach as Jane
Helen Fitzgerald as Cleo
The office workplace portrayed as a soul-sucking vacuum of trivia elevated to the level of monolithic importance is nothing new. Indeed, in these stressful times of staggering unemployment rates, the characterization of standard-issue workplace drones as satirical archetypes has become a useful method of dealing with our anxieties. (Who minds being out of work when these are the kinds of people one has to deal with?) But if the colorless monotony of typing, filing, collating, and answering phones is a mind-numbing reminder of the probable pointlessness of existence, then Clockwatchers ups the ante by adding expendability to the mix. Clockwatchers is about temporary office workers—Temps: Individuals whose by-definition job title and built-in impermanence place them at the veritable bottom of the corporate food chain.
"You're part of the corporate hierarchy. There's got to be a butt in every seat or else the entire infrastructure crumbles."

The clockwatchers at the center of director Jill Sprecher’s mordantly witty comedy (from a screenplay by Jill & Karen Sprecher) are four women of dissimilar backgrounds, bound in friendship born of their mutually-shared outsider status as temporary employees at the stultifyingly dull Global Credit Association (“Temps are like corporate orphans…we’re like corporate call girls!”). 
There’s dowdy Iris, (Toni Collette), timid to the point of invisibility; Margaret (Parker Posey), the sarcastic, office-savvy goldbricker; aspiring-actress/ man-hunter/chronic hair-flipper Paula (Lisa Kudrow); and OCD perfectionist-in-a-Chanel suit, personal phone call addict, Jane (Alanna Ubach).

Together, this oddball quartet of temps bravely weather the suspicious/hostile environment of 9 to 5 existence among the “permanents,” forging for themselves a kind of rebellious identity and solidarity. That is, until the unaccountably disruptive appearance of a mysterious new executive assistant named Cleo (Helen Fitzgerald). Cleo arrives like some reluctant-to make-eye-contact Greek goddess of doom whose mere presence seems to trigger a course of ever-escalating events leading to mounting tensions and an honest-to-god office mini-crime wave. The second half of the film dramatizes (in comic, yet poignant terms) the tenuous nature of attachments, whether to jobs or one another, and the toll that paranoia, guilt, and disillusionment can take on the barely acknowledged desire to belong and to be a part of something. Sometimes even a job we convince ourselves we hate.
Tedium, Inc.
(Clockwise from top left) Lisa Kudrow uses WhiteOut to French-Tip her nails, Jamie Kennedy seeks escape in the mailroom, Alanna Ubach pops bubblewrap, and Stanley DeSantis misses his rubberband ball.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
In a quote about the Nixon administration, author Kurt Vonnegut made the following observation about one of adulthood’s prime epiphanies: “You all of a sudden catch on that life is nothing but high school—class officers, cheerleaders, and all." 

Anyone who’s worked for any length of time at a job (ANY job) knows this to be true. I don’t care if we’re talking lawyers, doctors, dancers, or fast-food servers; it’s all the same. It’s a quite a shock when you discover that the petty hierarchies, cliques, and power games you thought you had left behind in high school come back to haunt you on a daily basis as the primary modes of social interaction in the adult workforce. 
Clockwatchers extracts a great deal of humor out of this fact, and in the best possible way: by merely letting the characters be real and letting the almost surreal absurdities of office life play out as they are. The film understands how the repetitious monotony of office induces a kind of obsession with order that causes something like a spiritual loss of equilibrium when there’s even the tiniest deviation from the norm. Most importantly it gets how, when people work in environments where almost nothing anyone does seems to matter, EVERYTHING begins to matter and people search for any kind of trivial drama or distraction to lose themselves in. Clockwatchers is sublimely funny in that quirky-real way of the spa sequences in Robert Altman’s 3 Women. There, as in this film, it’s behavior that makes us laugh, not jokes. (One of my complaints with the generally fine Office Space was that so many of the characters'
actions seemed overly-burlesqued for the sake of landing a joke, and the plot veered a little too close to sitcom-level wackiness.)  
"I just want a desk by a window and a decent chair."
PERFORMANCES:
All of the performances in Clockwatchers are top notch, but Parker Posey is my favorite. The wonderful Toni Collette who has the least showy role, generously allows Posey to pack up the entire film in her recently-purchased briefcase and walk off with it. Parker Posey is one of those actresses who's able to make gems out of lines that aren't even supposed to be funny (she’s the reason I actually own a copy of Josie & the Pussycats). In Clockwatchers she’s playing a kind of individual I've met often in my occupational life: the entitled, cynical, slacker who uses considerable brainpower and expends untold energy in trying to avoid doing the job they feel superior to, yet are not even qualified for. Posey is almost ingenious in the subtle way she creates a character both instantly recognizable, yet 100% original. (Love how, whenever approached by anyone in the office, she instantly adopts a vertical-eyebrows look of alert interest and a helium voice of affability.) Parker Posey does some remarkable things with comedy—the early scenes where she familiarizes the new temp to the office routine are just brilliant—and proves surprisingly affecting when required to show her character’s dimensionality.
Producer/director/actor Bob Balaban (here as executive Milton Lasky) is a master at playing befuddled bureaucrats. One of my favorite character actors, Balaban  makes even the smallest roles memorable and funny (as he proved in Robert Altman's Gosford Park).
I get a big kick out of Lisa Kudrow who, in the years subsequent to Friends (a show I thoroughly hated, I might add) has become a personal favorite. Some of the best TV I've ever seen was her short-lived HBO series, The Comeback, and I literally couldn't pull myself away from watching every single episode of her former Internet series, Web Therapy, in one sitting. Kudrow, like Posey, is among the best and most resourceful of the comic character actresses around today ( I would have loved to have seen them work for Altman). Kudrow has a kind of “out there” comic inventiveness that makes her an appealingly unpredictable comedienne and always fun to watch. Clockwatchers has her breathing hilarious new life into an overworked comedy archetype: The delusional actress wannabe.
By day, Paula may sabotage copy machines in order to put the moves on the hunky repairman, but by night she is aspiring actress Camille La Plante ("Drama's in my blood."). Here she proves to Iris that she's as skilled an actress as she is a typist.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
I love the way Clockwatchers looks. The beautiful cinematography by Jim Denault is extremely responsive to the story. Bright and idiosyncratic for the early comedy scenes, claustrophobic and disquieting as the film's tone darkens. His lens seems always to be peering, hovering, and capturing odd details in close-up or at the outsides of frames. It’s like another character in the film.  


THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
I’ve been going on about how funny the film is because its ability to make me laugh out loud each and every time I watch is what I recall most easily. But the thing that makes Clockwatchers one of the films that inspires me is that behind the satire is a great deal of compassion and understanding of the small things that become lost (or we allow to have stolen) as we try to stake our claim in the world.

The average workplace is where most people’s youthful idealism cruelly collides with unflinching reality. Everybody has dreams, but pragmatism dictates we all must do something to earn a living. It’s the extent of the disparity between what we dream and what we do that is the stuff of both comedy and tragedy.
Some knuckle under, satisfied to blend in with the masses, others self-destructively try to buck the system. In the big scheme of things, we seem to spend an awful lot of time wondering if we belong and where we fit in, ofttimes in the pursuit neglecting or betraying the people and things closest to us. Perhaps too often, it's ourselves. 
Through comedy, Clockwatchers poses the question, “Is it that hard to find permanence?”
Through drama it answers, “Sometimes.” 


Copyright © Ken Anderson

12 comments:

  1. Ken, I thoroughly enjoyed your witty, thoughtful CLOCKWATCHERS blog post! Having been a temp myself, I can completely identify with these women. You really got under the skin of these terrific actresses and their performances (who doesn't love Parker Posey?). Excellent review!

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  2. Hi Dorian TB
    Thanks so much for taking the time to visit my blog and comment.A former temp! My hat goes off to you! I've never worked in an office myself, but always wondered how "Clockwatchers" would play to someone who was familiar with this world. Glad to hear that there is a point of comic identification in the characters. And yes...and the ever-hilarious Parker Posey is something like a National Treasure.

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  3. Loved reading your review, especially about the cinematography, hadn't noticed what a phenomenally photographed film it was before.

    It really is one of those rare originals. So quirky and bizarre, so hilarious - but at the same time extremely bleak and lonely. Toni Collette is terrific as usual, Posey is sublime (the "you don't even know my name.." scene is amazing), and Kudrow brings an unusual complexity to her character that one might not have expected at the start of the film, as well as nailing all the comedic scenes.

    Shame this film is kind of forgotten, one of those wonderfully funny and magnetic late 90s independent comedies that seem to have disappeared from consciousness. Thanks for the review.

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    1. Thanks Wendy. Yes, "Clockwatchers" manages to be both quirky and bizarre without being self-consciously so, like so many indie films today. Kudrow really makes me laugh out loud in some scenes ("Shit! Shit Shit! I can't believe that skinny bitch knows how to fix a copy machine!") yet makes her character so touching. And Posey in that scene you mention is heartbreaking. That's what kills me about this movie; it is extremely funny, but never once are the characters less than real. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  4. "It boggles the mind (an admitted, in the words of All About Eve’s Addison DeWitt, “dull cliché,” since I don’t really know what a mind boggled is) how few people know about this, one of my absolute favorite workplace comedies."

    It boggles my mind too, but not really cuz most people are dummies who don't know a good movie when they see one.

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    1. Hi Andrea! Your comment made me laugh because I guess while I would never actually voice that opinion aloud, it's exactly what I sometimes think when I consider movies like "Clockwatchers" disappearing into oblivion while the next Kevin James idiot-fest becomes the highest grossing comedy of all time. my taste can be odd, but "Clockwatchers" is a film of genuine quality. I'm glad it has a few fans out there! Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment!

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  5. "Permanence" never seemed so evil, desperately desired but diabolically elusive, mocking you in every situation, proving just how worthless you are. Your assessment that "when people work in environments where almost nothing anyone does seems to matter, EVERYTHING begins to matter..." is so true both in the film and real life. Always trying to divine from the most trivial of clues where one stands in the Grand Scheme of things.

    Superiority, that was the word I could never quiet assign to Parker, my favorite actress OF ALL TIME (besides Brittany Murphy RIP). That screen capture of the four of them getting lectured by "Barbara" (Debra Jo Rupp) and the look on her face says it all about her acting genius. I liked Parker's freak out scene too, when maligned as the "little office thief" (Tom Cruise stole & hacked it in Jerry Maguire). Pure genius, I watch EVERYTHING she makes.

    Beautifully filmed like no other, elements of Hitchcock in style. The whole score was Muzak (brilliant) and the colors a'la beige tones and muted pastels, put you right there with them in the swoons of quiet desperation. I consider these characters my friends.

    Your review is the most accurate and insightful I've ever read about this hidden gem of a film, and thats coming from a former male "Temp". Thank you.

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  6. Thank you very much! I really enjoyed reading your comments and appreciate the extra insights you brought to the film: the Muzak score, the color scheme, the Hitchcockian cinematography. You sound like a real fan of the film, and as a former temp, I suppose it speaks well for the film's satire that you find so much realism behind the entertainment. I especially liked reading your appreciative words about Parker Posey. She can do no wrong as far as i'm concerned. Your observation about "permanence" is especially well-taken. Thanks for sharing your appreciation of this great little film and I thank you for your kind compliments. Come back again!

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  7. Enjoyed being reminded of this movie, Ken. I remember watching it several times on VHS or DVD or whatever we had in the 90's, but eventually stopping because of its sadness. I'll never forget the scene where the woman thinks the handsome boss is greeting her and then finds out that he's not.

    Oh...just remembering it is making me sad. But it's a happy kind of sad. Thanks for all your reviews!

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    1. Hi Tay
      If I may say so, I think it speaks very well of you that you recall the sad undercurrent of this film. I think a lot of the very best and most moving
      human comedy comes out of being asked to laugh at that which would otherwise make us cry (as in the film "For Your Consideration," or the original British version of the TV show "the Office").
      I love that you allowed yourself to get in touch with the poignant sadness behind the humor (that sequence you recall is a killer), I'll bet it made watching the film a richer experience.
      Thanks very much for your comments!

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  8. I think I saw this only once, about when it came out, but bits have really stuck with me, and almost all of them are Posey's. She's such a manic goofball so often that it really hits hard when she isn't, as here, in The Daytrippers, and in The House of Yes. Movies where she's only goofy (Party Girl, The Misadventures of Margaret) are fun but wasting her talent.

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    1. A very good, well-taken point. Posey is such a gifted comedienne, but you're right, when exposed to what she is capable of dramatically, it's hard not to feel that the best of her is underutilized in some of those terrific ensemble comedy films. But I've always held that after the 70s, Hollywood hasn't ever really known quite what to do with unique,quirky actresses.

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