Director: Jill Sprecher. Cast: Toni Collette, Parker Posey, Lisa Kudrow, Alanna Ubach, Helen FitzGerald, Bob Balaban, Stanley DeSantis, Paul Dooley, David James Elliott, Debra Jo Rupp, Jamie Kennedy. Screenplay: Jill and Karen Sprecher.

Having worked as a temp for two summers, I walked into Clockwatchers, Jill and Karen Sprecher's new film, anticipating a comic send-up of all the foibles peculiar to office work: the serial collapses of the Xerox machine, the proliferation of neon-colored Memo pads, and the Darwinian struggle for staples and pens. Clockwatchers delivers plenty of laughs around these and other corporate phenomena, but somewhere in the middle of the movie, its comic skin is peeled back to reveal a surprising, almost surreal core of unhappiness and mistrust among its central characters. Clockwatchers does not fully capitalize on all of the plotlines it begins to lay out for itself, but the intensity and compassion with with the Sprecher sisters examine their protagonists make Clockwatchers an intriguing and enjoyable hour and a half.

Iris (Toni Collette, of Muriel's Wedding and Emma) shows up for her new temporary position one morning at 8:57. The receptionist at the insurance office to which she has been assigned looks down at his magazine, ignoring her, until the clock strikes 9:00 exactly, when he ushers her in with the kind of fussy, unwilling politeness that characterize many of Iris's encounters with her new colleagues. (It is no mistake, it seems, that the word "office" exists so prominently in the adjective "officious.") Iris, dumpily dressed in a severe sweater and long skirt, is too self-conscious to seek out her contact in the company, so she waits on a bench in the periphery of the central office for two hours before Barbara (Debra Jo Rupp), apparently the head of personnel, escorts her to her seat and sets her to typing out claim forms. "Try not to make too many mistakes," she requests. "These forms are very expensive." Iris botches the first two, transferring the crumpled sheets from the trash can into her large purse, lest any of her superiors walk by and note her error. Collette's almost palpable shame is a riot in this scene, and the next shot—of Iris emptying a purse full of trashed forms into the bathroom waste receptacle—is also an inspired hoot.

Iris soon meets Margaret, another of Parker Posey's coltish urban vamps. Margaret is a fellow temp assigned by Barbara to show Iris around the office. To Margaret's mind, this mission is fully accomplished by pointing out the copy-machine and coffee rooms, demonstrating how "accidentally" to hang up on testy callers, introducing her to Art, the supply svengali, and taking her to the cafeteria. Here, over brown bag lunches, Iris meets Paula (Lisa Kudrow) and Jane (Alanna Ubach), the other two temps in the office. The foursome become fast friends, going out for happy-hour drinks after work, sniping about other workers, and, in the grand tradition of Instant Film Friendships, getting their collective picture taken in one of those booths that generates four shots for a quarter.

These women's shared conversations and private methods of procrastination of these women are consistent sources of big laughs—Posey, the stand-out of the cast, scores a knock-out from the simple act of ripping up an inter-office memorandum—but the Sprechers focus their film increasingly on each woman's barely concealed neurosis. Iris's father constantly asks her with oblivious congeniality when she is going to accept a better job at a bigger company, reminding Iris all the time how unqualified she actually is for such a job. Paula, a bulimic, is an aspiring actress who makes up auditions and rehearsals to cover up her failures. Jane marries a long-time boyfriend whose liaisons are known to all the women but her. And Margaret fosters a venomous resentment of the limitations of her position, the inattention of the salaried employees whose reports she copies, and the hiring of a mousy new secretary named Cleo (Helen FitzGerald) to serve the CEO, a brazen show of disrespect for Margaret's two years of prior work in what she considers a comparable position.

All of these storylines could have played quite mawkishly if the Sprechers were demanding our sympathy or pity for Iris, Margaret, or the rest, but while these women are certainly not meant to be disliked, we cannot help but perceive that Iris and Margaret are ill-equipped for better jobs, that Paula would make a terrible actress, and that Jane does allow her boyfriend to abuse her. Entertainment Weekly criticized Clockwatchers for making its heroines seem like nothing more than "overgrown high-school whiners" (or something like that), but the Sprecher sisters are aiming for exactly that portrayal. Clockwatchers represents temporary work not as a morass in which talented individuals must briefly bide their time, but as a peculiar limbo-state of employment for oddball people who already exist in their own limboes, neither adept nor incompetent, neither reliable nor deceptive, neither loyal nor self-serving. This complex characterization makes Clockwatchers a far more interesting picture than it would have been as a simple, breezy comedy.

Which is not to say that we don't miss the humorous edges of the film a little as curdled psychology and dramatic conflicts take over the picture's second half. On top of the sinking laugh-meter, there is a flimsy plot device surrounding a spree of thefts in the office and the search for their perpetrator. Though the perfunctory handling of that storyline is obviously intended to reflect the apathy with which all "action" in the company itself transpires, such self-conscious intentions don't make the story any more compelling to follow. Moreover, two of the four women comprising Clockwatchers's primary cast recede inauspiciously as the picture continues, disposed of so quietly and summarily that the film briefly wobbles from its tricky balance of compassion for and criticism of its characters, making them seem disposable in a way that disappointed me.

Then again, sudden disappearances are a literal occupational hazard of temping, so maybe it doesn't make sense to complain. Whatever the case, Clockwatchers ends on a note of more emotional resonance than I expected, and with all of its interesting philosophical questions about work and relationships open to consider. Everyone involved with Clockwatchers deserves to go home feeling positive about having performed a good day's work. Grade: B

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