Before Office Space there was Clockwatchers (Movie Review)

One is a little less photogenic, can you guess which?

I have a theory about why movies about work aren’t more popular than you might think they should be: Work is boring as heck.

The movie Clockwatchers (terrible title) doesn’t do much to dispose of that concept. The movie begins with the monotonous ticking of clocks and it feels like it takes the first half of the movie to get going. But it’s tough to criticize Clockwatchers harshly when that’s what work feels like a lot of the time. Still, there’s an argument to be made that movies about work shouldn’t themselves feel like work.

Office Space (you can find my review, here) does this by introducing bombast and machismo. Whether it’s jokes about threesomes, blowing up buildings or the inner rage of white dudes at their bosses. Clockwatchers goes for a much more gentle and subtle approach. At the same time it’s an altogether more realistic one that comes out on top over Office space.

First, Clockwatchers came out in 1997, 2 years prior to Office Space so while I’m sure many who watch this would say it’s a copycat, it’s more than likely the other way around. Then again, it wasn’t uncommon for folks to hate their office jobs in the 90s. I say we call it a draw and say that people often come up with similar ideas when put in similar conditions.

Second, while the title is clunky (I think The Temps may have been better), it does illustrate what much of the movie contains: Killing time. The movie centers around four temporary workers who are all women. And it being the 90s you still have a lot of the fairly open sexism that…well, you’d still probably see in some places today, honestly. Men asking women to get them coffee, make copies for them and generally be controlling.

Mind you, none of these women are here to serve coffee to their bosses, that’s not their job. It’s just another “side hustle” they get no extra payment for, nor any more guarantee of a longer lasting job so they can pay their rent. Then again, one of the women, Jane (played by Alanna Ubach)can coast by either way on her wealthy husband who constantly messes up, cheats on her and then gives her expensive gifts.

The beauty of capitalism, right?

Our story focuses on Iris (Toni Collette) who is a new temp hire that meets up with Margaret (Parker Posey), Jane and Paula (Lisa Kudrow) at work. Paula wants to be an actress, while Margaret is looking for a letter of recommendation so she can satiate her family’s expectations. Iris isn’t sure what she wants and just coasts by as her father badgers her about getting a big corporate job. Presumably one he’d like for himself or had in the past, thereby projecting his desires for his own life, on his daughter.

Margaret is perhaps my favorite of the characters, constantly rebellious and trying to get Iris to revolt against the system in little ways. She tells her that, “By the time anyone figures it out, you’ll be gone!” And that’s her attitude towards the corporation they work for, it’s beautiful. The movie has a few great moments where the temps play on their own temporariness and the fact that a faceless corporation can make their employees faceless as well.

But that’s not all to the movie, it’s also about their social lives and time outside of work. Unsurprisingly I enjoyed these moments the most because while not directly about work, in a movie so dominated by work, they are filled with that tension of, “When are they going back to work?” When is the fun hangout at Margaret’s apartment going to turn into a new scene where Margaret and Iris are being surveilled and bossed around?

The movie has a realistic approach to how workers, especially temp workers are treated: Poorly. Everyone’s replaceable under capitalism, of course, but temp workers are really replaceable. You can get threatened with termination simply for not wearing your skirt right. Constant attempts to catch a thief are mysteriously centered around the workers who happen to be temporary and women. A coincidence, I’m sure.

Whether it’s men who think they are entitled to the physical labor of women, e.g. fixing their presentations which they lost minutes before it’s due or needlessly nitpicking, this movie has it all. It also has scumbags who take advantage of Paula’s desperation for someone to love her. It also has executives who come off as completely emotionless. The cringe line of, “We’re all a family” is spoken in this movie, just to give you a taste.

There’s a lot of workplace sabotage in this movie. Stealing paperclips, pens, and one character even goes on strike. But there are no explosions, no pent up male rage leading to a burning building, there’s only the bland office and the temporary escapes of consumerism, friendship and worker solidarity.

And those escapes are shown to break down over the course of the movie. Eventually the mechanical time takes place of the human time, the muzak replaces the real music and the most basic of demands “a room with a view” are never accomplished. It’s not all bad though! If you enjoy workplace theft then I’ve got some great news for you about this movie.

Other than that? The acting is solid, I wouldn’t say any of it is particularly impressive until the last 30 minutes of the movie. But that middle is still fun and you feel like you get to know the main characters well, if only in cursory ways. Importantly, the film was also directed by a woman, which is why I think the potshots at executives and other asshole men tends to be so on point in this film. The writing and dialogue is generally solid as well.

Is this better than Office Space? For me, yes, but I can see someone disagreeing given how much livelier it can be at times. But for me, it’s about the characters and the realism. Iris and company don’t find meaning in construction work at the end of the film.

They find the same truth that Iris says throughout the film: Everything is temporary so you may as well leave your mark.

Don’t wait, act.

If you want to leave your mark on my Patreon account, I’d appreciate it!

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