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You're On The Clock, Mister: 20 Great Workplace Comedies

Features
by The Playlist Staff
June 6, 2013 3:10 PM
12 Comments
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"9 to 5" (1980)
"9 to 5" is one of the gold standards of the workplace comedy; one that all others are undoubtedly measured up against (with most found wanting by comparison). The movie, which still seems cutting edge today, concerns three women (Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton) who conspire to get back at their "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot" of a boss, played memorably by Dabney Coleman at his oily best. Coleman is a character who walks through the office and people literally shudder and clutch themselves in terror. But the movie quite obviously belongs to the women, each of them fierce and terrifically funny (when Parton threatens Coleman with turning him from "a rooster into a hen," you can't help but giggle maniacally), even if the filmmakers' attempt to make Jane Fonda "mousy" fails miserably (she's still a total fox). Workplace comedies only, er, work if you can identify with your protagonists and if the professional place that the film attempts to conjure is one that you can totally believe yourself inhabiting. In the case of "9 to 5," both are totally true. Coleman is a boss everyone has had (maybe more so before sexual harassment laws were regularly enforced) and the go-go-go eighties office is perfectly actualized. (It serves as a wonderful time capsule.) The legacy of "9 to 5" is greater than most workplace comedies, too, having inspired a television series and a well-reviewed Broadway musical (thanks largely to its immortal theme song by Parton, which we'll be singing all day now, thankyouverymuch).   

Soul Kitchen” (2009)
Fatih Akin, the filmmaker behind international arthouse hits like “Head-On” and “The Edge Of The Universe,” has always marched to the beat of his own drum, pursuing whatever cinematic alleyway stokes his interest at the moment. Still, few were prepared for the filmmaker to make what is essentially a madcap mainstream comedy with “Soul Kitchen.” There’s not much in the way of bruising drama to be found in this tale of Zinos, a well-meaning but flaky and underachieving owner/chef of a barely surviving restaurant. But keeping the business afloat isn’t his only worry: his girlfriend is getting tired of watching him spin his wheels and has taken a job overseas; his brother has been recently paroled and can only stay out by (reluctantly) taking a job at the restaurant; a new chef hired for the restaurant pushes his impenetrably fancy food and this is all while a sleazy (and cartoonish) businessman eyes buying the property outright. So yeah, this is wacky in every sense of the word, but for at least the first hour of so, it’s endearing and engaging. As a workplace movie, we’d wager Akin’s depiction of the food industry is purely imaginative, and this is all heightened in the way that most movies/reality shows are about being chefs. And while the movie overplays its hand in the final act, it’s heart is in the right place more often than not, and this comedic diversion is dish worth tasting.

"Career Opportunities" (1991)
While certainly not anyone's idea of a classic, "Career Opportunities" has got major nostalgia points as well as that magical "I wonder what it would be like to be stuck in a department store all night" glimmer that still manages to capture your imagination in a very real and vibrant way. John Hughes wrote and produced "Career Opportunities," which opened a year after his smash "Home Alone" but without a similar reception. Frank Whaley, with a doo-wop swoop of black hair, plays a Ferris Bueller-ish wise acre who is forced to get a job as a nighttime janitor at a local Target. He's locked in overnight, however, which turns out not be such a bad thing when he stumbles upon Jennifer Connelly, who plays a comely runaway. Of course, as tends to happen in John Hughes scripts (especially from that time period), a pair of bumbling burglars (played by real-life brothers Dermot and Kieran Mulroney) break into the store and hold the two hostage. While not the best workplace comedy ever, it still manages to retain certain threads of authenticity and Connelly is at her most magnetically movie-star-ish here (something that never materialized but really should have). More importantly, it captures that moment in young adulthood when you’ve got to start doing something, anything really, and stop fucking around. A tough lesson, but one that goes down smooth when Hughes is delivering it.

"High Fidelity" (2000)
If someone tried to mount an adaptation of Nick Hornby's beloved novel today, they would probably have to make it a period movie, since record shops like the one it's centered around are such a rarified scarcity these days. Thankfully that wasn't quite the case when Stephen Frears made his adaptation, swapping out the book's London location for Chicago and changing the name of the lead character to a less British moniker. The record store is called Championship Vinyl and John Cusack owns and manages it. His employees are a team of mismatched super-geeks played by Jack Black (in a breakthrough performance) and Todd Louiso. "I knew when I was auditioning that it was going to be a very specific and special film for our generation," Louiso recently told us. And you know what? He was right. Everything about Championship Vinyl is warmly identifiable – either you recognize yourself in the customers or the employees (or maybe the video store equivalent of the store). Championship Vinyl could be anywhere, but it's mostly in our hearts. 

In Good Company” (2004)
The Weitz Brothers oeuvre is all over the map: Together they both directed "American Pie," and "About A Boy" and when they went solo, Chris directed things like "The Golden Compass" and "The Twilight Saga: New Moon." Paul Weitz, however, has mostly stayed within the humanistic drama field (“Little Fockers” notwithstanding) and his best film is 2004's "In Good Company" starring Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, and Scarlett Johansson. A work place dramedy set in the world of advertising, Quaid plays an aging ad exec whose life is upended when his company is bought and he’s faced with the prospect of a cocky, hot shot boss who is half his age (Grace). Friction is already deep in the air from the young and old dichotomy, but complications exacerbate when Grace starts dating Quaid’s younger daughter played by Johansson. It’s a bit predictable and sounds largely hackneyed and bland, but “In Good Company” is surprisingly soulful, rich and satisfying (no really, Andrew Sarris named it the Best American picture of 2004, which is admittedly, a huge exaggeration, but it does point to the fact that this movie is much more than it appears; Roger Ebert was also a fan).  Like “The Internship,” (and other workplace comedies on this list), it takes pleasure in pitting the old and potentially antiquated against the up-and-coming. And yes, there are cliches to be found. The old dog proves that not only can he learn new tricks, but he show the younger guys a thing or two, and perhaps that’s severely on the nose, but this movie about the evils of corporate culture is surprisingly charming, funny and contains a lot of heart. Another thing that doesn't hurt the movie's tender tone (and arguably helps a lot), and a strong soundtrack that includes David Byrne, Iron & Wine, The Soundtrack of Our Lives, Steely Dan and more.

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12 Comments

  • B. | September 27, 2013 3:24 PMReply

    Why is 'Waiting' not on this list?? At first glance, it looks like a dumb, easy comedy, but when you watch it, it's actually kind of genius. The whole thing takes place in just one day-- at a typical chain restaurant one finds usually on the fringe of a mall or shopping center. Anyone who has ever waited tables or at least worked in such a place can relate to it. It follows multiple haphazard plot lines, just as one often does find multiple themes recurring among certain people throughout a typical work day. There are laugh-out-loud moments, but there are also ones that really make you think about what it means to work in the same low-pay job for long periods of time, and whether or not it's really worth it to go finish that college education.

  • Runcil | June 7, 2013 1:59 AMReply

    Please get your hands on this Indian film called Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year. Can easily fit in the list.

  • Oogle monster | June 6, 2013 7:38 PMReply

    What about Adventureland? Sure it doesn't take place in a traditional office but it is still a workplace dark comedy.

  • YEP | June 7, 2013 2:42 AM

    I second this.

  • wes | June 6, 2013 4:22 PMReply

    Clerks is terrible. Huducker Proxy is overrated (though I love the Coen Bros). Glad to see His Girl Friday and Swimming with Sharks.

  • cirkusfolk | June 6, 2013 4:00 PMReply

    Oh and how can u not include a film that's title is "Horrible Bosses"? I know u all didn't like that movie either but I have to admit I just love Justin Bateman.

  • wes | June 6, 2013 9:47 PM

    who's that?

  • cirkusfolk | June 6, 2013 3:56 PMReply

    I clicked on the article to see two things: 1) To see if The Promotion was mentioned. It was (barely). And 2) To say Extract is actually better than Office Space because I knew the article was going to compare the two.

  • Alex P | June 6, 2013 4:00 PM

    The Promotion is godawful.

  • yer | June 6, 2013 3:44 PMReply

    Looks like you just found 20 things that fit 'workplace comedy' instead of 20 GREAT ones.

  • Edward Davis | June 6, 2013 3:59 PM

    There are 3 great movies on the first page. 4 if you count the tripe that is clerks.

  • Sean | June 6, 2013 3:49 PM

    You make it sound like that it's wrong to like 9 to 5 or Working Girl. Good movies.
    I also have a soft spot for Career Opportunities.

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