“The Boss of It All” (2006)
Lars Von Trier has dabbled in comedy before. “The Idiots” is devilishly confrontational and “Melancholia” has its twisted laughs too, but LVT’s only straight-up comedy and farce is this 2006 picture. Heavily influenced by Ernst Lubitsch’s own workplace comedy “The Shop Around the Corner,” the concept is definitely much broader and sillier than anything else LVT has done, before or since. It centers on a nervous IT company owner who invents a CEO in America who he can blame all his unpopular decisions on. But when the time comes to sell the company, the buyers insist on meeting the CEO and so in a panic, the owner hires a pretentious and desperate actor named Kristoffer (von Trier regular Jens Albinus) to portray the fictional CEO. Suffice to say, when the actor has to put on this charade much longer than he expected, hilarity ensues (though some of it is admittedly somewhat sitcom-esque). For some strange reason, LVT decided to employ Automavision, whereby filming is done with an "automatic randomized camera" that selects the shots making for laughable irregularities such as clipped bodies and miles of negative space between characters or above heads. While amusing, “The Boss Of It All” may be Von Trier’s least essential movie (or at least of his later years). And ironically, after this comedy, easily LVT’s most upbeat and happy film, the filmmaker fell into his well-documented deep depression.
As the hapless underling to a Hollywood executive, Frank Whaley’s performance in “Swimming With Sharks” is all stuttering discomfort and insecurity, ready to collapse at a moments notice. His movie business idealism eventually coalesces into pragmatic survivalism as he aims simply to get through the day without a verbal dismantling at the hands of his almost supernaturally cruel boss, Buddy. Even in a career as colorful as Kevin Spacey’s, full of sniveling villains and sarcastic heroes, his Buddy is a flat-out sociopath, in a role that makes the over-reaching metaphor of the title seem not so inappropriate. Watch Spacey as he bites into fellow future “Usual Suspect” Benicio Del Toro during a rant about a lack of productivity. Cringe as Spacey pins Whaley’s Guy to the wall verbally, chewing him up for confusing Equal and Sweet and Low. And watch this Hollywood mover and shaker just completely dissect a once-idealistic young hawk by demoralizing him in every single way to the point where the poor young fellow snaps. Writer-director George Huang made a strong debut here, though he made the mistake of using his real-life beginnings as inspiration, keeping him restricted to television for the rest of his career. It’s rare that you find a workplace movie so biting that it effectively boots you from that workplace, but there you go.
Notable mostly for being a big-time studio flop from filmmakers known for making quirky, esoteric low budget fare, "The Hudsucker Proxy" was co-written by the Coen Brothers' longtime friend (and infrequent collaborator) Sam Raimi and produced by Hollywood big shot Joel Silver. The workplace in question is Hudsucker Industries (a name established in the previous Coens/Raimi collaboration "Crimewave"), a kind of vaguely defined corporate conglomerate. When top boss Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning) leaps to his death out of the boardroom window, a slimy executive (Paul Newman, clearly relishing the villainous role) hatches a convoluted plot to install a nincompoop as the head of the company, in an attempt to gain control. Said nincompoop is played by Tim Robbins and much to Newman's chagrin, he comes up with a stellar idea for a revolutionary new product – the hula hoop. "The Hudsucker Proxy" is a workplace comedy that's set in a workplace so fantastic it might as well be on the moon. It ostensibly takes place in 1958 but is so fantastically stylized that it could double as one of Ridley Scott's futuristic cityscapes. The Coens (and Raimi) were clearly inspired by the films of Preston Sturges and Frank Capra and make the most of their (for them anyway) colossal budget – this thing has truly impressive visual effects, a lush score by longtime confederate Carter Burwell, and sets that rival Tim Burton's German expressionist take on "Batman." It doesn't always work (Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance, for example, tips from homage to unnecessary imitation) but it's always impressive – particularly in the way they brought to life the hustle and bustle of Hudsucker Industries, a place few people would willingly work.
"Broadcast News" is, if not James L. Brooks best film, definitely his most enduring. Over 15 years after its release, its incisive and cynical take on the intermingling of personal and professional relationships feels as relevant as ever. "Broadcast News" is many things: a look at the evolving news landscape, a fun and funny take on film tropes, the war of style vs. substance, but it is at its heart a film about people whose lives are defined by their work, and therefore their workplace (in this case, the world of TV news). Holly Hunter is a revelation as the outspoken and driven television news reporter Jane, in the midst of a push/pull of emotion and ethics between the charming but dim anchor Tom (William Hurt) and the principled but self-sabotaging reporter Aaron (Albert Brooks). James Brooks once said that the newsroom is a place where there is "no line between shoptalk and personal talk," but he takes this one step further in "Broadcast News" where the lines between work and life become increasingly blurred for the characters, and one memorable extreme is the scheduling of Jane's crying spells to the early morning. It seems, at least to Aaron, that in every arena, both personal and professional, Tom's superficial charm and good looks win out over principles and smarts, as Tom manages to get the job he wants, and almost gets the girl, too. Hunter's Jane would say she's juggling her career and love life, but it's clear which one's getting the lions' share of the attention, inevitable causing her personal and professional, ethical and emotional boundaries to be tested. In the end it is a work that comes between Jane and Tom, the former sticking to the moral high ground of factually driven hard news and the latter willing to make compromises for great entertainment and great television. At the end of the day none of the love triangle members end up together, as their respective hearts belong instead to the work itself.
"Beavis and Butthead" creator Mike Judge tapped into something very primal with "Office Space" – the absolute, almost toxic frustration that goes along with modern society's cubicle-dwelling office culture. It was like the "Dilbert" cartoon but more angry and toothsome and with a gangster rap soundtrack that (somehow) perfectly fit the tone of the rest of the movie. (Destroying a computer, it turns out, goes along quite well with a song whose primary lyrics consist of "die motherfucker, die.") The movie is so plainspoken and devoid of style that it sometimes feels like a really goofy documentary, aided by the fact that the actors all play their characters with a lived-in relatability (Ron Livingston, Stephen Root, Gary Cole, David Herman). Jennifer Aniston is the closest thing that the movie has to an A-list celebrity but even she turns down her star wattage to dingy dive bar dimness. When it was initially released in 1999 it got lost in the shuffle; it was poorly marketed and had the misfortune of opening in a year in which a cinematic sea change was happening all around it. A tiny comedy with all the sizzle of a suburban strip mall was bound to be overshadowed. But the inherent truthfulness of the humor, along with how rewarding the movie is on repeated viewings, made it an almost instantaneous cult favorite, enjoying a second life on home video that easily eclipsed both its tepid critical response and piss poor box office haul. Judge would return to similar territory with 2009's "Extract," except this time he would come at it from the boss' point-of-view. The results weren't nearly as satisfying and, save for a truly brilliant supporting turn from Ben Affleck, "Extract" is kind of a wash. Judge is still one of America's great comedic voices, but he could have applied that voice to better material (like his under-seen, nearly direct-to-video sci-fi satire "Idiocracy").
The “workplace comedy featuring one of the girls from 'Friends' that isn't 'Office Space,' " Jill Sprecher's 1997 film “Clockwatchers” is a movie due for a revival. Lisa Kudrow, Parker Posey, Toni Collette and Alanna Ubach (all of them fairly big names at the time, now sadly pushed off the screen by younger faces) play four twenty-something temps trying to while away the time at their vacuous fill-in jobs while hoping desperately for something permanent and meaningful to turn up; or, at the very least, something fun. Eventually, a plot as perfectly petty as the setting shows up, when knick-knacks begin to go missing from desks and suspicion falls on the temps because, hey, no-one really knows them (or even knows their names), and they're easy to fire. “Clockwatchers” is bitterly and tenderly observed, a curious comfort to the tribes of temps who prop up this thing we call the economy, as well as a source of vengeful inspiration to the sort-of-oppressed sort-of-workers of the world. It might have been made in 1997, but this is a movie for the age of the internship. Patronising permanent employees, mind-warpingly dull tasks, ways to look busier than you truly are, zero job security: this is life as we know it. So modern does it feel, in fact, that one wonders if Lena Dunham has ever seen this film...