Total Recall

Total Recall: 12 Movies About Work

With Horrible Bosses hitting theaters, we run down some of cinema's most memorable workplaces.

by | July 7, 2011 | Comments

Work Movies

Most of us spend a pretty big portion of our lives at work, and a lot of that time isn’t exactly exciting — which probably has a lot to do with why most characters in the movies don’t spend much of their screen time on the clock. But that isn’t to say Hollywood hasn’t produced its share of cinematic statements about work — and with Seth Gordon’s Horrible Bosses opening this weekend, we decided now would be a fine time to look back on some of the most noteworthy entries in the genre. Whether you’re looking for inspirational dramas, thoughtful statements on what it means to be truly gainfully employed, or just a few laughs, this week’s Total Recall has something that (ahem) works for everyone!



For most of the movies on this list, working life forms the backdrop for a larger plot or some kind of sweeping statement about the world we live in. Not Clerks. The 1994 indie classic that launched Kevin Smith’s career only wants to show you a day in the life of a pair of strip mall employees: the upstanding, uptight, and generally miserable Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and his acerbic, laid-back, and generally incompetent friend Randal (Jeff Anderson). Over the course of the film, the duo fill a shift with half-hearted stabs at work, a brief game of roof hockey, a visit to a wake, and dense gobs of dialogue about everything from relationships to the moral implications of the Star Wars films. Hugely profitable and hugely influential, Clerks captured a moment in time for a generation of disaffected twentysomethings biding their time in unfulfilling jobs while they tried to figure out what to do with their lives — something EW’s Owen Gleiberman hinted at when he observed, “The way our culture is going, this may be what a hip sitcom looks like in 15 years.”

The Devil Wears Prada


Meryl Streep is surely a lovely person in real life, but she sure is good at playing nasty when the cameras are rolling. Case in point: The Devil Wears Prada, the film adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s novel about the havoc wreaked by a tyrannical fashion magazine editor (Streep, playing a thinly fictionalized version of Vogue’s Anna Wintour) on the lives of her subordinates (led by a never-more-charming Anne Hathaway). Streep’s character is cartoonishly awful, but audiences couldn’t get enough of her — to the tune of over $325 million in ticket sales and a Best Actress Academy Award nomination. As David Edwards opined for the Daily Mirror, “Comedy doesn’t get much blacker — or more brilliant — than this.”

Glengarry Glen Ross


You think the dynamic at your company is brutal? Try swimming with the sharks of Glengarry Glen Ross, a pitch-black, deeply profane case study in how quickly an office will disintegrate when a sales team is told that it’s about to enter a competition — and everyone who winds up lower than second place is going to lose his job. The result, as you might expect, is a bile-drenched free-for-all, brilliantly scripted by David Mamet (adapting his own Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play) and brought to painful life by an ace cast that included Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin, and Al Pacino (who earned an Academy Award nomination for his work). It isn’t for the faint of heart, and it might provoke a few winces of recognition, but it is, in the words of Filmcritic’s Christopher Null, “An utter masterpiece.”

Gung Ho


Filmed at the peak of Japan’s 1980s economic resurgence, Ron Howard’s Gung Ho played upon American concerns about their struggling auto industry with a comedy about an out-of-work foreman (Michael Keaton) who convinces a Japanese company to take over his town’s shuttered plant. Its premise set the stage for an interesting combination of culture-clash humor and socioeconomic observations, but the script was more interested in setting up easy gags based on outdated cultural stereotypes (industrious Japanese, lazy Americans) and tacitly endorsing union-bashing. Ultimately, most critics found Gung Ho lacking, with Roger Ebert labeling it “a disappointment” and TV Guide pointing out that “Keaton is lovable, as usual, but he comes across as a dumb jerk.” Still, even if it didn’t live up to its potential, Gung Ho was a $36 million hit at the box office, ending in the year’s top 30 and inspiring a short-lived TV spinoff. As Variety’s review argued, “the conflict between cultures is good for both a laugh and a sober thought along the way.”

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit


In the years after World War II, an era of relative peace and prosperity gave rise to new standards of affluence for the American middle class — and a new set of expectations for career-minded breadwinners. Today, we tend to chuckle at the stereotype of the 1950s as an era of closely cropped lawns, gleaming appliances, and martini lunches at the country club — but even then, some recognized that the new societal mores weren’t always everything they were cracked up to be. Case in point: 1956’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, an adaptation of the Sloan Wilson novel in which a troubled World War II vet (played by Gregory Peck) returns from the front and joins the workforce, where he receives a dispiriting education in the emotional costs of a life spent in the office. It has its weaknesses, but The Man in the Gray Flannel suit is a surprisingly thoughtful early look at modern consumer culture — and, in the words of the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, “A mature, fascinating and often quite tender and touching film.”

Modern Times


Part slapstick classic, part pointed observation on the far-reaching effects of modern industrialization, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times used the Great Depression as a poignant backdrop for the tale of a hapless assembly line worker subjected to ever-greater indignities — first at work, where simply trying to keep up triggers a nervous breakdown, and then out in the increasingly senseless modern world, where just trying to get by is often enough to put him on the wrong side of the law. It’s 75 years old, but parts of Modern Times‘ message remain as timely as ever — and the film is, as Bill Weber of Slant Magazine argued, “a treasure of Depression America’s zeitgeist and the curtain call of the movies’ first comedic icon.”

9 to 5


A boisterous ode to any woman who ever had to endure the lecherous overtures of a co-worker, 9 to 5 united Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and — making her big-screen debut — Dolly Parton, who banded together to deliver a lesson in workplace sensitivity to one of cinema’s most deliciously unlikable bosses. As played by Dabney Coleman, the proudly chauvinistic Franklin Hart, Jr. makes life miserable for his female subordinates — until they get revenge by making him a prisoner in his own home, and use his forced absence as an opportunity to start making changes around the office. Goofy? You bet, but it also packed a prescient message, and it jump-started a film career for Parton, who inspired Roger Ebert to write, “she is, on the basis of this one film, a natural-born movie star, a performer who holds our attention so easily that it’s hard to believe it’s her first film.”

Norma Rae


Sally Field won her first Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of the labor heroine that Norma Rae is named for — a feisty union organizer based on Crystal Lee Sutton, the cotton mill worker whose real-life struggle to improve conditions at her factory inspired a bestselling book, not to mention countless moviegoers. When it was released in 1978, Norma Rae was a tip of the hat to the sacrifices borne by union members in the early 20th century (including Sutton, who ended up losing her job); today, it serves as a reminder that the battle for workers’ rights is far from over. Either way, it’s the movie that Ken Hanke of the Asheville Mountain XPress called “A beautifully made, splendidly acted film that more than achieves its aims.”

Office Space


It certainly beats ditch-digging, but working in an office is fraught with its own perils. And if you find yourself stuck in the wrong one, your life can start to feel like the mind-numbing purgatory endured by Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), the disgruntled corporate drone whose war against the Initech company drives Office Space — and provides 89 minutes of richly cathartic comedy for anyone who’s ever wished they could tell their boss or co-workers exactly what they think of them. Though it was a box office flop, Office Space has earned cult classic status over the years; as the Arizona Daily Star’s Phil Villarreal asked, “Who hasn’t sat at his desk after lunch and spaced out for an hour? Who wouldn’t love to march the copy machine into a field and go to town on it with a baseball bat?”



American industry’s relentless drive toward higher productivity has helped make us an economic powerhouse, but it isn’t without its drawbacks; our focus on the bottom line can lead to sloppy work — or, in the worst circumstances, life-threateningly dangerous conditions. Take, for example, the story of Karen Silkwood, whose whistleblowing campaign against the plutonium plant where she worked — and her mysterious death — are dramatized in this Oscar-nominated effort from director Mike Nichols. Though the plant eventually settled out of court in a civil suit, it never admitted wrongdoing, forcing Silkwood to end on an ambiguous note that frustrated some critics — but for others, like Nick Davis of Nick’s Flick Picks, it “achieves impressive credentials as a drama of human character, not just as a screed against intolerable public practice.”

Up in the Air


Losing your job can be a deeply traumatic experience. We tend to tie our sense of purpose so closely to our work — and live so close to the edge of our means — that sudden unemployment is often a terrifying prospect. However, firing people (or, to use the cleaner modern euphemism, “downsizing” them) can take its own psychic toll. Observe Up in the Air, Jason Reitman’s adaptation of the Walter Kirn novel about a benumbed corporate downsizer (played by George Clooney) who makes a good living by flying around the country doing the dirty work for companies shedding workers — only to discover that his own job is on the chopping block, thanks to efficiency measures being considered by his boss (Jason Bateman). A troubling film for troubled times, Up in the Air touched a nerve in post-recession America, earning more than $160 million at the box office and six nominations from the Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Clooney, and Best Supporting Actress for Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick). Observed At the Movies’ A.O. Scott, “I think that this is a classic in the making.”

Working Girl


Career advancement often has as much to do with who you know — and your gender — as the quality of your work. It’s a sad fact that’s handled with a light touch in Mike Nichols’ Working Girl, a sharply written, solidly cast romantic comedy starring Melanie Griffith as a secretary whose acumen for investment banking is ignored at her firm because she didn’t go to the right school. Using an injury to her boss (Sigourney Weaver) as an opportunity to make her move, she proves her hidden potential — while falling in love, of course, with an executive (Harrison Ford) who doesn’t know she’s “just a secretary.” Portions of the plot seem dated now, but in its day, Working Girl offered audiences a bright blend of screwball comedy and social commentary. As Rita Kempley wrote for the Washington Post, “This scrumptious romantic comedy with its blithe cast is as easy to watch as swirling ball gowns and dancing feet. But oh me, oh my, how much more demanding it is to be a fairy tale heroine these days.”

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Horrible Bosses.

Finally, here’s a charming little ditty about soul-crushing office drudgery, courtesy of Fountains of Wayne:

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