Film Reviews

Counting the minutes

It's a truism that unless your film picks up momentum as it goes along, you'd do well not to put a ticking clock in it. Thrillers like The Big Clock and DOA work because they're superior mousetraps that have found a way to put time itself in pursuit of the hero. Otherwise, you're as much as looking at the audience's watch for them. About the third time you go to that bank of clockfaces in Jim Jarmusch's incidental travelogue Night on Earth, you can hear the chairbacks groan.

Clockwatchers, Jill Sprecher's slight, slackerette comedy of the underemployed and motivationally challenged, has been biding its time since Sundance a year and a half ago, and no doubt trying to look busy. But rather than stick to its sitcom premise of temp workers suffering the indignities of corporate slavery, the same gallows-humor no-futurism we've seen awaiting the more boho adjuncts of their doomed generation, the film out of desperation opts for intrigue, betrayal, paranoia--and hopefully something darker. Clockwatchers would like to think it's engineered something between The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Kafka. But better make that Nine to Five and "Bartleby the Scrivener"--a kind of hysteric boredom. Meanwhile, precious seconds are ticking away....

Toni Collette, the frumpy housecow of the Australian sleeper Muriel's Wedding, once again reprises her ugly duckling act, hiding her natural charisma from the camera behind tawny bangs and bulky sweaters, and displaying a perfectly serviceable American accent despite swallowing half her sentences. She has come to the generic Global Credit offices to somehow make the gears of commerce inch forward by typing labels and stapling Xeroxes, a faceless career path that happily suits her insufferable shyness and nascent personality. There she quickly bonds with ringleader Parker Posey, glamorpuss Lisa Kudrow, and nervous nellie Alanna Ubach (the eponymous Denise in Denise Calls Up), where all four quickly become the butt of the class system and ready-made suspects in the pettiest of office crimes.

These secondhand Roses are little more than types, keeping one eye on the clock as they labor to mask their lack of real purpose, and their even greater lack of interest in their surroundings. But veterans Kudrow and Posey at least make the most of their roles--Kudrow bringing her dizzy ding-dong delivery to the gags, and Posey as usual taking charge. As for Posey, although she still seems in danger of sucking all the oxygen out of the room, her self-reflexive office tours for the benefit of the wide-eyed Collette, as well as her effortless circumvention of company policy--all looking largely improvised--are easily the highlights of the film. And by using a reaction shot to flick breath spray into an open lighter, sending belches of flame skyward--her own personal take on Brando stealing the glove and daring Eva Marie Saint to get it back--she basically sets a whole new benchmark in scene stealing, and seems more than ready to hold her own against one of those Lethal Weapon fireballs.

Along the way, we get Jamie Kennedy, the Pan-looking instigator from Scream, who wanders through from time to time as a mailroom delivery boy bearing free-floating exposition, casually updating a plot where the slightest bump constitutes action. Bob Balaban appears as a finicky company executive, O-lan Jones as a dusky soothsayer and comic veteran Paul Dooley as Collette's painfully proud father. All, no doubt, were available at a day rate, and are tragically underused.

The problem is that all of these characters are set up with their own special problems, which go largely unexplored. Rather than follow them into their separate worlds, the film keeps them locked in the office, charting how each holds up to the corporate overlords. They leave us at their desks; the real story seems to be elsewhere.

Ubach looks forward to a life of domestic bliss, but the intimation that her dreamboat fiancee is too good to be true is raised and just as quickly dropped, sans explanation. Kudrow interjects momentary pathos as her personal life overtakes the office hijinx, even as her own diffused acting dreams and party girl desperation bring her part some dignity and depth, but then manages to weather it all with nary a whimper. Even Collette, who seems more than up for the challenge, is given short shrift on the home front, so that by the time she inevitably comes into her own against the system, her comrades are long gone--escorted from the film as succinctly as Posey after her one big scene, left to seek their resolution in a makeshift, unfulfilling voiceover.

Like the temporary life it chronicles, not a bad diversion for the first hour or so. After that, you may find yourself counting the minutes.

Directed by Jill Sprecher. Written by Jill Sprecher and Karen Sprecher. Starring Toni Collette, Parker Posey, Lisa Kudrow, and Alanna Ubach. Opens Friday.

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Paul Cullum