Saturday, February 25, 2012


It boggles the mind (to quote All About Eve’s Addison DeWitt, an admitted “dull cliché," especially since I don’t really know what a mind boggled is) how few people know about Clockwatchers; 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. How can this be? I’ve seen it many times and it never once ceases to make me laugh out loud at the accuracy of its satirically-rendered characters, dialogue, and situations. Clockwatchers is the most wickedly perceptive comedy-of-white-collar-manners I’ve ever seen. Even taking into account that my personal taste in movies can be a little bit off-beat (falling somewhere between Benny Hill overkill and Robert Altman blink-and-you'll-miss-it) I'm still surprised at how unknown and unappreciated this marvelous film is.
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 depicted as a soul-sucking vacuum of corporate trivia elevated to levels of monolithic significance is nothing new. Indeed, in these times of staggering unemployment, the characterization of standard-issue workplace drones as satirical archetypes has become a useful means of dealing with our anxieties. (Who minds being out of work when these are the kind 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 meaninglessness of life, then Clockwatchers ups the ante by adding expendability to the mix. Clockwatchers is about temporary office workers—Temps: Individuals whose by-definition job description and title signify built-in impermanence, placing them at the very bottom of the corporate food chain.
"You're part of the corporate hierarchy. There's got to be a butt
in every seat or 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 and temperaments, bound in friendship born of their mutually-shared outsider status as temps 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 bravely weather the suspicious/hostile environment of 9 to 5 existence among the “permanents,” forging for themselves a kind of rebellious strength through solidarity. That is, until the unaccountably disruptive appearance of a mysterious new executive assistant named Cleo (Helen Fitzgerald). Cleo arrives like some kind of reluctant-to-make-eye-contact Greek Goddess of Doom whose mere presence triggers an ever-escalating series of reactions and events.
As unfocused suspicions give way to an honest-to-god workplace mini-crime wave, the film's second half dramatizes (in both comic and poignant terms) the tenuous nature of attachments. Attachment to a job you don't even like, because it at least gives you a place where you can pretend you're needed. An attachment to friends who feel closer than they really are because of the forced intimacy of 9 to 5, 5-days-a-week. 
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 bubble wrap, and Stanley DeSantis misses his rubberband ball.

Kurt Vonnegut, in speaking about the Nixon administration, made the following observation: “You all of a sudden catch on that life is nothing but high school—class officers, cheerleaders, and all." 

Debra Jo Rupp as middle-management worrywart Barbara

Anyone who’s worked for any length of time at an office job (make that 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. The petty hierarchies and cliques you thought you'd left behind in high school are, on a daily basis, 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 allowing the almost surreal banality of office life play out just as it is.
The film understands how the repetitious monotony of office work induces a kind of obsession with order. An obsession so keen, even the tiniest deviation from pattern has the power to incite an almost existential loss of equilibrium in the corporate structure. Most importantly, the film understands how, when people work in environments where almost nothing anyone does seems to matter, everything begins to matter.
Petty Theft of Time
The inconsequential and petty rule the day. People fixate on mindless details and go in search of any kind of trivial distraction in which to lose themselves. In this way, Clockwatchers reveals its dark humor. It's finely observed, character and behavior-based humor that hits the same authentic-quirky stride of Robert Altman’s 3 Women. There, as in this film, it’s behavior that makes us laugh, not jokes. (My biggest complaints with the generally fine Office Space were that so many of the characters' actions seemed overly-burlesqued for the sake of landing a joke, and the plot veered unnecessarily close to forced, sitcom-level wackiness.)  
"I just want a desk by a window and a decent chair."

All of the performers in Clockwatchers are top-notch, but Parker Posey is my favorite. An ensemble film in form, the main character of the story is the talented Toni Collette, who, with the film's least showy role, generously allows Posey to pack up the entire film in that recently-purchased briefcase of hers and walk off with it. 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 the kind of individual I've met often in my occupational life: the entitled, barely-qualified slacker with the unearned cynicism who expends considerable brainpower and effort in avoiding doing the job they feel is so beneath their talents. 
Posey is ingenious in the subtle way in which she creates a character both instantly recognizable, yet 100% original. (Love how, whenever approached by anyone in the office, she instantly adopts this perky, vertical-eyebrows look of alert interest and helium-voiced 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 the darker demons haunting her character.

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 also 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 binged on her hilarious internet series, Web Therapy. Like Posey, Kudrow is among the best and most resourceful of the comic character actresses around today (both would have been wonderful working with Robert Altman). Kudrow has a kind of “out there” comic inventiveness that makes her an appealingly unpredictable comedienne and always fun to watch. Clockwatchers finds her breathing 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.

Paul Dooley as Bud Chapman
As Toni Collette's father, Dooley, one of my favorite character actors, plays another
loving and supportive dad (Sixteen Candles) with his trademark easygoing naturalism.
His performances always have that lived-in authenticity that never shows the acting.

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. Much like the furtive activities of these cubicle-dwellers, Denault's 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.  

I’ve been going on about how funny Clockwatchers is due to its unfailing ability to make me laugh is what comes first to mind. But the thing that makes this film such a favorite is because behind the satirical depiction of office life, there lies 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. The stuff of comedy or tragedy exists somewhere between the extent to which what we dream, and what we spend most of our days engaged in, fail to intersect.
Some knuckle under, satisfied to blend in with the masses, others self-destructively try to buck the system. In the grand scheme of things, we seem to spend an awful lot of time wondering if we belong and where we fit in. Frequently in the pursuit of finding meaning in our lives, we wind up 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  2009 - 2012


  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!

  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.

  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.

    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!

  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.

    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!

  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.

  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!

  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!

    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!

  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.

    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.

  9. I decided to google reviews of this movie and found yours! You truly captured this film! As a long time "office" worker - and aspiring author who would jump at the chance to escape the grind - this movie touches the part of me that sees office life in the lens this film captures. Tedious, yet thick with office politics that serve only a temporary purpose to assuage the ego of the person best at them. Thank you for such a lovely review of one of my favorite movies!

    1. Hi Nicole
      Thank you for such a lovely comment as well! Glad to hear, as an office worker yourself, you find enough humor and authenticity in "Clockwatchers" for it to be a favorite.
      I've mostly worked with worked with dance companies and gyms all my life, but EVERYTHING in these professions is just as ruled by petty trivialities and power-mad middle-management.
      Hope you come back and visit again!

  10. avoid doing the job they feel is so beneath their talents

    Talented people know that the best way to 'get out of it' jobs-that-are-beneath-my-talents is to do them so well/so quickly that their resulting idleness forces management to move them onto more challenging tasks.

    The average workplace is where most people’s youthful idealism cruelly collides with unflinching reality.

    Maybe this collision is telling us that we were misled during our youth. Managing expectations is half of life.

    But if the colorless monotony of . . .

    What satisfies us as consumers (consistent quality), sometimes dissatisfies us as workers (the 'colorless monotony' of following consistent processes). There are no solutions, only tradeoffs.

  11. Wow Ken you've done it again--written another great insightful essay about a movie right out of my personal collection. Somehow I missed this entry when I was reading the blog on other occasions. I recorded this film from IFC years ago and began to immediately re-watch it, placing myself in its "cult" from the start. There's so much to enjoy here: the performances by the four leads, the odd Muzak soundtrack, the sense of isolated reality about the office setting itself. I'm always moved by the emotional support Iris receives from her father: "You could end up running a company one day" he tells her. When he hears she is making new friends at the company his response is, "Well they have good taste." He also buys for Iris the power suit she wears in the film's last scene. I also love how Iris opens up around her new friends and how happy she is to bring them the cupcakes she makes at home. She knows something momentous is happening in her life and thus she is devastated when the pressures at the office cause the group to splinter. Hearing the four start to bicker is really so disheartening.
    I agree wholeheartedly that this is really Parker Posey's movie. In the scene where she is using her lighter to ignite the spray from her Binaca she pauses to scratch her nose as she delivers her line. I cant take my eyes off her in this segment. It reminds me of what Montgomery Clift referred to as "the accumulation of subtleties" that inform good acting. Interestingly, while Margaret is not the office thief she does pilfer things throughout the movie: the shot glasses in the bar scene, Art's rubber band ball, the post-it notes in her apt that Iris notices are "just like the ones from the office." Yet guilty or not, Margaret pays for her brashness and lack of conformity. Like the fortune-teller says to Margaret when the four pay a visit: "The nail that stands out gets pounded down". Still, it is a nice consolation when Iris maneuvers to get for Margaret the coveted letter of recommendation. It definitely seems a victory of sorts.
    Anyway, just wanted to add my comments. Keep up the good work. I appreciate what you do. Rich

    1. Hi Rich
      Thrilled this film is a favorite. So few of the people I know have even heard of it, much less seen it.
      I love your observation of how supportive Iris' father is. It's a rare characterization. He's not pushy and he always has a nice word for her. So many of the things you site are the very things that make this movie so special to me. Your calling the office environment an isolated environment is perfect. The film does a marvelous job of making it feel as if the time spent at work operates in a separate reality with different rules and pressures.
      Reading your comments brought back a lot of memories of my favorite moments. I haven't watched this in a while, but your perceptive take on the film's performances and themes has whetted my appetite for a revisit.
      Thank you for visiting an older blog and sharing your thoughtful comments. I enjoy hearing from you!