Clockwatchers is a funny movie. How could it not be, with a cast headlined by a Lisa Kudrow coming straight off Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, a Toni Collette just three years removed from Muriel’s Wedding and a Parker Posey right in the middle of her run as the ‘90s indie comedy darling?
They, along with Alanna Ubach, play temps stuck whiling away their days doing mind-numbing work in an anonymous office; Iris (Collette) is the new temp in town, and she’s swiftly taken under the wing of outspoken rebel Margaret (Posey), budding actress Paula (Kudrow) and the soon-to-be married Jane (Ubach). The job is dull, but the temps derive genuine pleasure from each other’s company and making fun of “the permanents” who keep them at arm’s length. As they laugh in the face of mundanity, we laugh right along with them.
Director Jill Sprecher, who co-wrote the film with her sister Karen, paints that mundanity in a comically exaggerated but still eminently recognizable way. Muzak is piped in to increase “worker efficiency.” Art (Stanley DeSantis) guards paperclips and staples like precious gems. The receptionist (Joshua Malina) refuses to acknowledge Iris on her first day until the stroke of 9 AM. The office is its own ecosystem, powered by pettiness and tedium. The only way to make it to 5 PM is to chuckle at the ridiculousness of it all.
Clockwatchers is funny. It’s also bleak. From early on, a run of workplace robberies serves as background music to the lives of our protagonists. Because it’s little things that go missing—a kitschy mug, a rubber band ball—no one pays much attention at first. Yet the longer the thefts continue, and the more people in the office that are affected, the more dissatisfaction grows. Memos become meetings that become official investigations. And as the permanent workers have always treated the temps with a certain amount of distrust, Margaret and the gang become the prime targets for the office-wide suspicion.
In a different movie, like in the buddy comedy that the promotional material promised, this heightened suspicion would join our temps closer together and they’d enact glorious revenge on the permanents. That doesn’t happen. They agree on a strike to show how much worse off the office would be without them—but just one of the four actually follows through. They know their jobs are inane; that it’s absurd some of them have been there for years and the management haven’t bothered to learn their names. Still, needing the money, they have no choice but to keep showing up—and when the solitary striker returns to a less-than-welcoming reception, they’re glad that they did.
The film’s emotional climax screams out for a moment of Spartacus-esque solidarity. It never comes. The blaring silence rings in the ears. The final moment of grace is small but poignant, the bosses’ ignorance of the temps’ names weaponized to right a tiny wrong. Compared to the despair of what came before though, the catharsis is minimal. In tone, if not location, we end in a completely different place from where we began; the initial comic veneer eroded by the acidic realities of life for those on the lowest rung of the corporate ladder.
There’s real bravery in the Sprecher sisters’ determination to make their movie so painful and honest; to lean away from easy humor and towards the greater truths about the ache of spending your working life as a replaceable cog in an uncaring machine. If Clockwatchers had remained the jaunty buddy comedy of its first half, it might well have become a hit. With that bleak tonal shift though, the bigger distributors passed, and the one who finally took it up—BMG Independents—didn’t seem to know what to do with it (hence that muddled marketing campaign). The film received largely positive reviews, underperformed at the box office and quickly faded into obscurity.
Although three of the four leads would become, or continue being, big stars (Ubach settled into a successful role as an in-demand character actress), Jill and Karen Sprecher have only made two films in the 25 years since Clockwatchers: 2001’s critically-lauded Thirteen Conversations About One Thing and 2011’s Thin Ice, which was so mauled by the studio that the sisters tried to have their names removed from it. Perhaps due to the stress of that experience, neither Jill nor Karen have amassed any IMDb credits in the eleven years since—like their best movie, they disappeared from public view.
Clockwatchers made something of a comeback last year, however, with a virtual screening on Metrograph’s website (organized by long-time fan John Early) and appearances on various streaming platforms (most notably, the Criterion Channel) giving the film an unexpected and long overdue second lease on life. With a cast who’ve proven their staying power and a damning indictment of corporate callousness that’s as depressingly relevant as ever, its continued appeal isn’t hard to decipher.
Here’s hoping that, despite their own long absence from the cultural sphere, one day the Sprecher sisters will have a renaissance too, and we’ll hear from them again.
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.