The Staircase on HBO MAX has many things to recommend, not the least of which is its impressive cast, which includes Toni Collette and Parker Posey, two of Hollywood’s most eclectic, always interesting, most underrated performers. Although they don’t actually share any screen time, just having these two together in a project is a dream for anyone who loves these powerhouse actresses, who never disappoint. But, for me, my reaction was a little more specific. Not only was I happy to see Collette and Posey in anything at all, but I was thrilled to see them together again, considering the last time they were onscreen together was 25 years ago, and it was nothing short of magic.
Don’t you remember the last time Toni Collette and Parker Posey were in a film together? Don’t worry. You’re not alone.
Many have forgotten a small, independent, hardly-seen movie from 1997 called Clockwatchers, in which Posey and Collette star, along with Lisa Kudrow and Alanna Ubach, as temp workers toiling away in a corporate office. Suppose you’ve never seen Clockwatchers, have forgotten about it, or have never even heard about it in the first place. In that case, I guarantee you have seen something it was inspired by, as it was a film so ahead of its time, in theme and genre, and stood at the forefront of an entire genre of popular culture—the workplace comedy. We’re not talking about workplace comedies that happen to be set in an office and are about co-workers, like Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn 99, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or countless others. In this context of workplace comedy, I am specifically referring to that genre of film and television where the office is more than just the setting; it’s the actual subject of the comedy.
When most people think of workplace comedies like this, the two that probably jump to mind first are The Office and Office Space. The Office’s original British version premiered in 2001, and the American version that launched in 2005 and has enjoyed a renewed popularity during the pandemic. Office Space, Mike Judge’s cult favorite from 1999, is still endlessly quoted among friends and consistently finds a spot on lists of favorite comedies of all time. Of course, the original office-place comedy—and still the ultimate classic—is 9 to 5, from 1980, which stars Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton as put-upon secretaries in a corporate office who get revenge on their bullying boss, played by Dabney Coleman.
Lying somewhere between 9 to 5 and Office Space/The Office is Clockwatchers, a workplace comedy that clearly took some inspiration from the former and clearly provided inspiration for the latter, even though it got nowhere near the recognition of either. Directed by Jill Sprecher and written by sisters Jill and Karen Sprecher, Clockwatchers is a dry, deadpan comedy about friendship and the soul-crushing life experience in a corporate office, especially for women. Collette, Posey, Kudrow, and Ubach play temps in a big, generic office, and they find refuge from the mind-numbing daily existence in each other’s friendship.
Collette plays Iris, the shy newbie, arriving on her first day, greeted by Posey’s character Margaret, the outgoing and snarky veteran charged with showing her the ropes. Margaret gives Iris the tour, introducing her to the various office character tropes and giving her the lay of the land, including all the various unwritten rules of temping. Finally, she introduces Iris to her two best friends at the company, fellow temps Paula and Jane, played by Kudrow and Ubach. The four become inseparable, eating lunch together every day and going out for happy hour as soon as the clock strikes five. But even though they have each other, the daily drudgery of the soul-killing work takes its toll, and their collective negativity makes them turn on each other when an office scandal erupts.
But the plot of Clockwatchers is nowhere near the point of the movie. Its massive brilliance, enduring legacy, and influence on those who followed it come from the meaningful and relevant themes beneath the deadpan comedy. As we now emerge from two years away from office life, the whole idea of going into an office is being re-examined. But, before the pandemic, especially in the booming 90s, office life played a massively important part in our society and defined how we related to each other professionally—and sometimes personally. The popularity of The Office and Office Space spoke to that desire we all had to be de-programmed from the routine, monotonous daily grind and pointed out so many of the inherently comic elements of office life, so relatable to so many.
Even today, the popularity of the AppleTV+ series Severance relies on our shared understanding of office life. Even though Severance is not outwardly a comedy, there is an underlying satire of office life that serves as a fundamental building block of the narrative. The basic plot of Severance deals with people choosing to shut off their brains for eight hours a day while they perform mundane tasks for an anonymous corporate entity, which is, essentially, also the plot of most workplace comedies, except, in the comedies, the workers wake up and fight back. Severance might also feature that, but I’m not here to spoil that most excellent show, which, if you haven’t seen, you must correct right away.
The bottom line is, would Severance have been able to find a foothold in the American psyche if it weren’t for the popularity of The Office? And would The Office have existed without Office Space? And when you see all the similarities between Office Space and Clockwatchers, it’s easy to see a straight line from one to the other. Pay close attention, and you’ll see the origin of some of our most enduring workplace comedy tropes, such as the endless struggle with the copier (although 9 to 5 did do this first), the weird guy with an obsession with office supplies, the clueless boss who’s all about appearances, and the office spy.
But Clockwatchers adds another element entirely, and that is the place of women in the office. It is a theme first explored in 9 to 5 and continued in Clockwatchers to a much more bitter and downbeat degree. Clockwatchers shows that women hadn’t made too many strides in the seventeen years since 9 to 5, still mainly in roles as temps or secretaries (long before they were called assistants). And, just as in 9 to 5, the highest-ranking and most influential woman in the office is the narc, the one assigned to spy on everyone else. Margaret, Iris, Paula, and Jane band together to support each other because no one else will.
Because Margaret, Iris, Paula, and Jane are temps, nobody else feels motivated to engage with them or even learn their names, an easy excuse to dismiss them and treat them as if they don’t even matter. It’s certainly no mistake that all the executives who have offices are men (and white) and that all the temps are women—keep the hierarchy in place, as an office is a microcosm of our patriarchal society. Even away from the office, the four friends experience sexism, as society puts each of them in a convenient box, and we see them rebelling against their pre-assigned roles, whether it be wife, daughter, sex object, or secretary.
But don’t for a moment believe that Clockwatchers is a deep and depressing social commentary. Well, it is, but it’s also f**king hilarious. And while the script and the direction are both first-rate, what makes Clockwatchers so eminently memorable, and a film I still think about twenty-five years later is the performances. It’s hard to think of another movie with four equally talented actresses such as these, all in the early stage of their careers, all four continuing on to have long and successful careers as successful working actresses, brilliantly talented and unsung in the depths of their talents.
Kudrow was at the height of her popularity in 1997 and 1998, with Clockwatchers coming on the heels of Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion and just before The Opposite of Sex. She also was in a little TV show at the time, and the comic timing she learned from Friends (and Mad About You) serves her well in Clockwatchers, as her portrayal of the insecure and sex-crazed wanna-be actress Paula is poignant and hilarious all at once, Kudrow showing off every one of her mad comic skills. IMDB trivia tells us that Kudrow postponed her honeymoon to do the film, as she undoubtedly saw the role’s genius and relished the opportunity to show the world she’s more than Phoebe.
Like Kudrow, Alanna Ubach was a working actress who made Clockwatchers already deep into her career. The definition of a working actress, even if you think you don’t know Ubach by name, you’ve seen her, as she has done everything from drama to comedy to voiceover to musicals in her still-thriving career. Among her varied credits are Coco, Bombshell, Euphoria, Legally Blonde, The Brady Bunch Movie, and Meet the Fockers. Her performance as Jane in Clockwatchers, the woman who tries hard to convince everyone how happy she is because she’s engaged, is the least showy of the four, but her effectiveness and chemistry with her fellow actresses is magnetic. Her ability to morph to whatever is needed in the scene is subtle and brilliant.
As for critics’ darling Toni Collette, Clockwatchers came three years after her breakout debut in Muriel’s Wedding, which put her on everyone’s radar. But because nobody knew the deep well of possibility for this future Oscar nominee yet, her role as Iris in Clockwatchers is very similar to that of Muriel, as she plays the wallflower who blossoms while also serving as the audience’s narrator. The film is seen through Iris’s eyes, and she’s the one the audience must connect with. There is nobody better than Toni Collette at being real onscreen, being relatable in her humility, and endearing in her timidity. The film is Iris’s journey, and we must like her and want to travel on it with her. Collette’s naturally self-effacing comic style early in her career suits her perfectly, and, as the movie goes on, Iris gets more confident, allowing Collette to show off even more of her skills.
But even with how much I adore Toni Collette and Clockwatchers is drawn to be her movie, there is no denying the force of nature that Parker Posey is as she walks away with the film in the most memorable performance of her career—which is really saying something. Most know Posey for her work with Christopher Guest in films such as Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, and, of course, Best in Show, or for her multitude of small but memorable roles in films and TV such as You’ve Got Mail, Scream 3, and Parks and Recreation. Still, her work in Clockwatchers is up there with her best stuff and one of the most memorable performances of the entire decade.
As Margaret, Posey taps into the angst and pessimism of the late 90s, as the bursting of the tech bubble in 1995 led to anxiety in the workforce, especially the generation just starting out. In Margaret, you see the cynicism and the distrust of the world, the jaded dreamer who has all but given up on herself but refuses to give into her doubt, no matter how angry she really is. And Posey, in all her comic genius, mines every bit of pathos and anger in her character and turns it into a protective layer of humor, sarcasm, and bitterness, serving to inoculate herself from the world. It is in the anger, the bitterness, the cynicism, and the overall sense of surrender in her character in which Posey finds the comic gold, as what she truly does best as an actress is to merge snarkiness with hope, like a clown dancing on a tightrope. While Posey truly makes anything she’s in better, she’s never been better than she is in Clockwatchers. It is a performance to savor and one I have not forgotten in twenty-five years.
The final legacy of Clockwatchers is, sadly, a familiar one. A dark comedy made by, about, and starring women had a tough time finding a foothold, as it earned just over half a million dollars at the box office and its director, Jill Sprecher, practically disappeared, making only two films in the twenty-five years since. It shows how much Hollywood loves to embrace female filmmakers who dare to make challenging, edgy and hard-to-categorize movies about women. If you think it’s hard now for female filmmakers, imagine how hard it must have been in the mid-90s.
But despite the lack of commercial success and industry support, Clockwatchers earned its place in the legacy of its genre, a groundbreaking foundation in the history of workplace comedies, one that should be recognized for being ahead of its time and for being a tremendous showcase for four actresses who are embedded in our popular culture, and will forever be linked to this one, a small, independent gem of a movie that deserves to be praised, appreciated, and forever remembered.