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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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"Curdled" (1996)
Your workplace doesn't always have to be a stuffy office. In fact, it can be a crime scene, splattered with blood and draped with gooey viscera. Tangentially set in the Quentin Tarantino universe (Tarantino produced it and a TV report makes note of the events from "From Dusk Till Dawn," with the information delivered by Kelly Preston, playing the same role from 'Dawn'), "Curdled" stars Angela Jones (from "Pulp Fiction") as a crime scene clean-up technician who starts to try to solve a disturbing string of serial killings attributed to The Blue Blood Killer (played, mischievously, by William Baldwin). There isn't a whole lot to "Curdled" but it is fantastically violent, particularly towards the end, and it has a nice, jazzy tone, thanks largely to the movie's cultural setting amongst Colombian immigrants in Miami and the actors' playfulness with the roles. The power of the film is somewhat diminished by the occasionally slack direction of Reb Braddock, a filmmaker who never directed anything else ever again, and the movie's obvious cheapness, which often veers from charming to distracting. Still, for a workplace comedy that definitely sits outside the comfort zone of the genre, "Curdled" is a whole lot of gory fun (and if you have even a passing interest of how it fits into the whole Tarantino framework, it's well worth a rent). Some movies deserve cult classic status but never achieve them; "Curdled" is one of those movies.

"Gung Ho" (1986)
In Ron Howard's criminally underrated workplace comedy, Michael Keaton plays an auto plant foreman who travels to Japan and persuades a Japanese manufacturer to reopen the stalled plant in his sleepy Pennsylvania town. The company agrees, and a bunch of Japanese executives return to the states to open the plant. Hilarity ensues. While some of the broader ethnic stereotyping doesn't ring particularly true (it's even more cringe-worthy today), "Gung Ho" is still a rousing culture clash comedy, with one of Keaton's finest (and most shockingly overlooked) performances at its center. A lot of jokes are wrung out of how the Japanese overseers are unhappy with the slovenly Americans (to the point that it was rumored that Toyota would show its executives the movie as an example of how not to manage Americans) and occasionally the script falls into cliché-ridden formula (like the third act's race against time to successfully manufacture a certain number of cars). But god damn does it work. "Gung Ho" is a finely crafted, precision machine, imbued with sleek Japanese craftsmanship (its smoky cinematography was done by the dearly departed Donald Peterman, who also shot "Flashdance") with a healthy dose of American heart and humor. And it was released at a time when the tension between American and Japanese production was at its height. It's also a shining example of a blue-collar workplace comedy. As we careen into whatever decade this is called, more of the workplace comedies will be centered around technology and science and movies about manual labor will be a thing of the distant past. Still, there's something to be said for a movie with a good old-fashioned factory setting.  

Empire Records” (1995)
Why Rex Manning Day isn’t celebrated as a national holiday (complete with themed cakes and a parade), we’ll never know. This ‘90s film covers 24 hours in the course of a flailing indie record store’s history as the shop is under threat of being bought by corporate giant Music Town on the same day it is visited by former pop idol Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield). There’s not much work actually happening here, which is probably why it made us want a job at a record store, where we’d use M&Ms to determine who got to choose the music, apprehend Whitney Houston-loving shoplifters and finish the day off with an impromptu concert by our fellow employees. Dialogue runs the gamut from terrible (“I want to sing in a band, but I don’t have the guts”) to the less terrible ("Who knows where thoughts come from? They just appear."), but “Empire Records” hasn’t aged as well as the best teen movies of the decade, despite its strengths as a workplace comedy. It’s rooted in a moment filled with crop tops, Gin Blossoms and chain record stores, but nostalgia isn’t quite enough to make our eyes roll any less when watching it almost 20 years later. What makes it almost watchable is the quotable lines, a Gwar hallucination and the cast, which is filled with people who went on to be much more famous (Renee Zellweger, Liv Tyler) and those recognizable only to those with a full DVR of police procedurals (Anthony LaPaglia, Rory Cochrane, Robin Tunney, Ethan Embry and Johnny Whitworth).

"Observe and Report" (2009)
While largely overshadowed by the superficially similar "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," "Observe and Report," from "Eastbound & Down" creator Jody Hill, concerned a bipolar mall security guard played by Seth Rogen and his attempt to apprehend a serial flasher who has been targeting shoppers at the mall. It's one of the few movies to adequately capture the weirdly distilled, floating-in-a-fish-tank atmosphere of most malls, as well as the utter desperation of those who are stuck there. Rogen's character is a sick, sad man and Hill is utterly fearless when it comes to pushing the boundaries of good taste, something that got him in hot water during a sex scene that many understood to be an endorsement of date rape. When Hill told the press, prior to the film's release, that it was inspired by "Taxi Driver," few could have understood how dead-on this statement was. It's dark. But it's also really, pathetically funny and true to life, from the food court employees saddled with funny hats, to the weird kiosk guy played by Aziz Ansari (one of the movie's best moments is a prolonged conversation between Rogen and Ansari consisting mostly of the words "fuck you") to Anna Faris' beautifully realized cosmetics girl. "Observe and Report" is like a workplace comedy that's been left out in the sun and curdled. It's gone wonderfully bad.

Honorable Mention
Long before "The Internship," "The Devil Wears Prada" showed how awful it was to be an underling at a highly coveted company, anchored by a pair of wonderful performances by Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway; "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" is a wonderfully bizarre look at the local news game in the seventies but is such an obvious choice we thought we'd kick it down to second fiddle status (we can't wait for the sequel either); until someone brought it up, we had almost entirely forgotten about "The Promotion," a movie starring Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly about dueling grocery store managers (directed by Steve Conrad, who wrote Gore Verbinski's tragically underrated "The Weather Man"); crazed Frenchman Michel Gondry's charming misfire "Be Kind Rewind" celebrates the low-rent fun of working in a video store (with Jack Black and Mos Def, no less); Ryan Reynolds restaurant comedy "Waiting" has developed something of a cult following (enough to warrant an even more mediocre direct-to-video sequel) despite some pretty obvious shortcomings; "Barbershop" is like those amazing segments of "Coming to America" turned into a feature-length movie except way less amazing; Mike Leigh's hard-to-track-down 1982 TV movie "Home Sweet Home" is all about three postmen; Spike Lee's inherent, sometimes outright ugly sexism often gets in the way of the otherwise enjoyable phone sex comedy "Girl 6;" "Thank You For Smoking" took you into the day-to-day operations of a hustling political lobbyist (played  with two-faced smoothness by Aaron Eckhart); and now to remind you of a movie that you barely knew existed in the first place – "Employee of the Month," a workplace comedy set in a Costco-style "big box" store that starred the box office-obliterating triumvirate of Dane Cook, Jessica Simpson and Dax Shepard. Let us never speak of it again. There's also of course, "Horrible Bosses," which had one of the most delicious premises of 2011, plus the promise of Colin Farrell as a bad boss in comb over. Sadly, the film turned out to be really forgettable and that's being kind of generous. - Drew Taylor, Gabe Toro, Rodrigo Perez, Kimber Myers, Kevin Jagernauth, Ben Brock

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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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