Clockwatchers Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

"Clockwatchers" is exactly as it sounds-- an examination of the realities of the modern working world, a perfect reflection of the times in which we live. Penned by sisters Jill and Karen Sprecher, this wickedly subversive satire is no glamorized Hollywood portrayal of life with the jet-set corporate elite ("Working Girl" comes to mind as a perfect example of this). Instead, this film focuses on the trials and tribulations of those at the lowest end of the corporate food chain-- the temps.

I used to work in a bank. There was this button on the desk and I kept looking at it every day for a month, and finally I just pushed it... it was the alarm. They never tell you anything because they're afraid you'll take their stupid jobs.

The film is best summed up in the opening sequence, which has Iris (Toni Collette of "Muriel's Wedding" and "Diana and Me"), a painfully shy and insecure woman, standing in the reception area of a large financial services company. The man stationed at the reception desk is ignoring her, flipping through a magazine. After a momentary lull of painful silence, the clock on the wall strikes nine, and everything changes-- the man puts down his magazine and acknowledges Iris, playing his scripted 'role'. Iris is an office temp, hired by a company to fill in for permanent workers ('perms') who are sick or on leave of absence, and given the most menial of jobs to do. They are treated like expense items on a balance sheet by upper management, and scorned by the perms, who believe the temps are out to get their jobs.

If it's important, they'll call back.
The cast of Clockwatchers

Though her first days are spent in near isolation, ignored by the perms and belittled by her superiors, Iris soon comes into the company of her fellow temps, who all have a healthy disdain for their dehumanizing work environment. The most outspoken of the group is Margaret (indie poster girl Parker Posey, last seen in "The House of Yes"), a fiery young woman who takes pride in doing whatever she can to undermine the efforts of the company, whether it be filching office supplies, or leaving callers on hold until they hang up. Paula (Lisa Kudrow of "Friends" and "Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion") is the archetypal ditzy blonde who has dreams of escaping corporate slavery by becoming a big-name actress. Finally, Jane (Alanna Ubach) believes that her liberation will come with her upcoming marriage to a man who 'buys her really nice gifts'.

The four temps become fast friends, which makes their ordeal more bearable. Their working days follow a predictable schedule, going through the motions at their desks, a form of passive resistance, while keeping a watchful eye on the wall clock. At the appointed hour of five o'clock, they cast off their chains, albeit temporarily, giving them a brief respite from the banality of office life. However, this coterie of temps becomes threatened when a series of thefts occurs in the company. Seeking to stem the crime wave, the company's managers institute a series of new procedures to ferret out the thief, which include segregating the temps to an open area of the office, where their every action can be watched by a security camera. Who is the thief? Is it one of Iris' co-workers, perhaps the frank and contemptuous Margaret? Or is it the newly-hired 'perm' that got the administrative assistant position that Margaret wanted?

Try not to make too many mistakes. These forms are expensive.

The strength of "Clockwatchers" lies in its examination and merciless derision of human behavior in the corporate setting. The office is a dehumanizing environment for all the employees, whether they are perms or temps, and they each create their own trivial fiefdoms and delusions of importance, not only as a means of exerting some sort of control over their lives, but also to hide their own inadequacies. How else can one explain a dweebish office supplies manager who remains tight-fisted when it comes to dispensing pencils? Or a chirpy office manager who quotes from the policy and procedures manual as though it is the Bible? At first, the audience can appreciate the perspective of the temps, who see stupidity and pettiness all around them, but as the story develops, we see that the temps eventually become what they despise the most, architects of their own petty domains and self-important delusions.

How can you fire me? You don't even know my name!

As a film, "Clockwatchers" is brilliantly directed by Jill Sprecher, with every element contributing to the no-holds-barred skewering of office life-- especially the tacky retro-Seventies production design, and the innocuous muzac that always plays in the background. Performances by the leads are strong, especially Posey's over-the-top scene-stealing irreverence and Collette's sympathy-generating wallflower role. However, the movie does come across as uneven, a small blemish in an otherwise engaging film. While the first half exudes comic brilliance as Margaret introduces Iris to the trivial rituals of their surroundings, the second half, which focuses on uncovering the thief, paradoxically suffers from poor pacing and loses some of its acerbic wit.

Even if you have never worked in an office environment before, the exposition found in "Clockwatchers" will still have resonance. The realm in which they inhabit can be found in any place where there is disparity between haves and have-nots, and like the temps, we all have a choice between tolerating the routine ("watching the clock"), or standing up and making a change. That is the central conceit of this intelligent film.

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