Dual Doldrums: “Office Space” (1999) vs. “Clockwatchers” (1997)

A scene from "Office Space", which was likely influenced by "Clockwatchers"

Shortly before cult classic Office Space (1999) hit the scene, another late 90s critique of corporate American work culture premiered at Sundance and won a handful of festival prizes, only to fade into obscurity – that was Jill Sprecher’s debut independent film Clockwatchers (1997), a drama focusing on a group of female temps at a credit company. Seen as a precursor to, and “female version” of, Mike Judge’s satirical comedy (if anything, it’s the other way around), it was met with some critical acclaim but has yet to receive its due, especially in the light of Office Space’s reputation. Despite being different films, tonally, their manifest similarities in terms of themes and subject matter invite comparison, with the more serious-minded Clockwatchers sometimes hailed as the superior work. Even Roger Ebert, in his review of Office Space, views the two as companion pieces, but does not go into why exactly he rated the drama (he calls it a comedy, but it’s really more of a drama; even the filmmaker herself concurs) a half-star higher. It’s certainly tempting to scale the two in such a way: Clockwatcher’s slower-paced, European arthouse-style aesthetic seems the more highbrow affair, as opposed to the zany, endlessly quotable, hip-hop-tracked Office Space. I can imagine artsy young people coming to Sprecher’s debut for the first time and denigrating Office Space as the lesser film, especially since its male centric POV is out of vogue in today’s cultural landscape. Is it even useful, however, to see the two films in terms of male vs. female perspectives in a soulless work environment? On the surface, it would seem so, but such interpretations skim over the films’ deeper workings and how Sprecher and Judge have their characters resolve – or be subsumed by – their struggles, sex bedamned. Both films, actually, are character-driven, and while Clockwatchers is certainly more introspective and realistic, it’s not without its missteps – the price for its dramatic ambitions, whereas Office Space gets a lot of leeway due to its nature as a satire.

First, the similarities: both take place in a sterile, cubicle-partitioned office tyrannized by managers who condescend to, run over, and heap mindless busywork on their employees. Both focus on a group of drones (software guys in Office Space and temps in Clockwatchers) who band together in opposition to what they see as corporate incompetence. Both use comedic elements to expose the often-absurd dynamics endemic to the average workplace, specifically through a sense of played-up quirkiness, either character-wise or situational – the most obvious similarity being the two oddballs, Milton (played by Stephen Root, in Office Space) and Art (Stanley DeSantis, Clockwatchers), as well as the managerial types who run the show. Both end on a positive note, although Clockwatchers dubiously so, as its protagonist, Iris (Toni Collette), only comes to such a conclusion after heavy losses. And, finally, both seem to conclude that the only way to beat the system is to cheat it, as the characters are so impersonalized by their respective corporations that they resort to using their devalued statuses to their advantage. (On a more trivial sidenote, both films cast the leads from hit sitcom Friends: Lisa Kudrow in Clockwatchers and Jennifer Aniston in Office Space.)

The first significant divergence occurs within the two films’ “teams,” so to speak. The ladies in Clockwatchers are temps, and this is important, since one of the overriding themes of the movie is transience, and the relating hunger for permanence that each of the women desire in their own ways, and how such desires get stamped out by uncaring entities, corporate or otherwise.

Iris, an awkward, frumpy young woman who would rather retreat into anonymity than stand out, takes more umbrage with her father’s wish for her to work in sales than with the office – she even derives a small pleasure in servicing a handsome exec (David James Elliott) who, by film’s end, doesn’t even remember her name. Margaret (Parker Posey) is wise to the state of affairs, and is lackadaisical with work responsibilities, but is perfectly willing to brown-nose if it gets her a recommendation from her direct superior, Mr. Laskey (Bob Balaban). Paula (Lisa Kudrow) is a wannabe actress who is more concerned with male attention, and the potential prospect of long-term companionship, than the ins-and-outs of her job. Ultraparanoid Jane (Alanna Ubach), more conventionally attractive than the other temps, is no less displeased by her employment – unlike the others, she must fend off the unwanted attention of clueless Eddie (Jamie Kennedy) from the mailing department – but takes solace in her rich fiancé, despite the fact that he is most likely cheating on her. None of them seem to hate the company itself, only their positions in it, as temporary workers. When Cleo (Helen FitzGerald), a woman more debilitatingly awkward than even Iris, is newly hired as a permanent, this exacerbates their frustration, and plays into when they eventually are turned against each other after the company suffers a rash of thievery and blame is immediately shifted to the temps.

Not so for Office Space. Peter (Ron Livingston) utterly hates his job at Initech, a cookie-cutter software company, and Initech itself. He’s full-time but with the implication that managers bitching at him for trivial slipups must be full-time, too. The problem for Peter is not that he’s denied a place in the corporate hierarchy – none of the film’s core workers seem to outwardly desire promotion – it’s that the nature of the job itself is anemic to what he actually seeks: freedom, the fuck-it-all kind of freedom that would allow him to “do nothing,” his now-famous answer to what he’d do with a million dollars. Samir (Ajay Naidu) and Michael Bolton (David Herman) are not as spiritually hollowed-out by their work as Peter is, but suffer their fair share of denigration, as they are frequently angered by faulty equipment as well as confusion over their names: Samir’s full name is never pronounced correctly by the higher-ups, and Michael Bolton – well, for obvious reasons. Their boss, Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole, now immortalized as an Internet meme), is the sort of sleazy type to hover around the cubicles in artificial friendliness, passive-aggressively asking whipping-boys like Peter to come in during the weekend to make up for extra hours lost due to lay-offs. Panic ensues when two consultants named Bob (John C. McGinley and Paul Wilson) are hired to clear house – at this point, however, a freak accident at a hypnotherapist appointment has Zenned Peter out to the point that he no longer cares about his job. He blithely shirks his responsibilities, to his friends’ dismay, but this mindset actually impresses the consultants so much that they offer him a promotion.

Roger Ebert, in the aforementioned review, aptly contrasts the different approaches of the films regarding labor:

“Clockwatchers” was about the lowest rung on the employment ladder – daily temps – but “Office Space” suggests that regular employment is even worse, because it’s a life sentence.

The permanence of Peter’s job stifles his desire for freedom, and only by totally rejecting the job’s demands, a la Bartleby, does he find a semblance of it; in Iris’s case, the job could be substituted for anything, really – it still would not assuage her essential lack of agency. It is only in the end, when Margaret is scapegoated for the missing items and the group disbands, that she decides to “make her mark” by leaving her job and posing as Margaret to finally get her the recommendation she vied for. Permanence, for her, means identity, and it is ironic that she achieves her impression on the world posing as someone else. Peter’s problems, by his film’s end, are more or less solved, while Iris most likely must begin again, somewhere else, albeit armed with valuable insights.

This is what I mean when I say that both films are character-driven: yes, the cultural commentary is there, and done well, but the plots are focused on what the characters think and do in reaction to oppressive agents. It would be a mistake to fault Office Space for its comparative lack of subtlety – it is a satire, remember. Despite it being a satire, though, much of the film is driven by understandable actions that the characters make. Peter is not as introspective a protagonist as Iris, sure, but the very simplicity of his nature – contra the demands of Initech – is what kickstarts the plot, drawing everything else into its oddly-awakened vortex. Lumbergh is befuddled by it, and even capitulates to its static power, while the consultants likely read his sudden laxity as the condescension Lumbergh gives off, calling Peter “a straight shooter with upper management written all over him.” This idiotic refusal to work seems to dismantle the system – yet, even this can’t totally withstand its control, for Peter is rewarded for his obstinacy, not punished, resulting in the guys’ plan to illegally siphon money from the company using a virus, a la Superman III.

Peter’s uncomplicated nature is nothing if not relatable. Don’t countless workers, chained to bureaucratic nonsense, feel the same, wanting nothing more than a place where their simplicities are catered to, and not suppressed? Or, if given a chance to be a millionaire, would use the money to fund their own laziness? Peter finds satisfaction working in construction after Initech is destroyed (because, at the end of the day, people need to pay the bills, regardless of their fantasies) but it really could be any number of jobs that do not engage in needless complexities despite lower wages. The fact that the film, while not a box office smash, became a cult classic in the wake of its release speaks to its true-to-life quality.

Shot from opening to "Clockwatchers", which influenced Mike Judge's "Office Space"

Clockwatchers demands more of the viewer’s focus, as it does not rely on entertaining hijinks to propel its commentary. Much of it occurs in subtler choices, such as the vast, empty and monochrome walls of the office that contribute to the isolation of the characters, or the tall, omnipresent executive figure who simply watches, totally silent, like an insidious Rod Serling-type presiding over the employees’ misery. As a drama, it is beholden to more stringent rules than its male-driven counterpart, but still manages to push at the edges. For instance, there is an almost Twilight Zone-style aura to the proceedings, what with the aforementioned silent executive, and the slow devolution into madness as Margaret is scapegoated for the theft actually being committed by Cleo, the new hire. Mundane objects like clocks or a plastic cocktail decoration are suddenly put into focus, appearing larger than they actually are. This surrealism is offset by a rather sober narration from Iris, where she opines on her new friends and job.

However, this is one of the weaknesses of the film, as her observations don’t add much save for a few potentially interesting insights, but most of it is simple recitation of what is already happening onscreen. If you took out the narration, or deepened its contents, the film would be improved, albeit only marginally. It’s a nitpick in an otherwise good film, but a misstep, nonetheless, and a counter to the idea that “more serious” always equals “better.”

As for the male vs female issue, I’ll admit I haven’t actually seen anyone engaging at-length with such a perspective, but in my defense, I haven’t seen anything period when it comes to a serious compare/contrast study of the two films – save for the Ebert snippet. I’m sure they are out there, so if anyone is willing to point me to them, I’d happily read up. I have, however, seen various comments in that vein, with even the Criterion Channel’s short introduction to Clockwatchers calling it “something of a female-driven precursor to Office Space.” Mostly harmless, but still catering to that sex-divided approach – is Office Space a uniquely “male” take on corporate America, and Clockwatchers a uniquely “female” take on the same? I don’t believe so, or it isn’t so simply put, although there’s something to be said about how Judge’s film uses aggression (i.e. testosterone) and the relative passivity of Sprecher’s women. Only Margaret shows outward defiance – going so far as to physically resist the policemen who escort her from the building – and is promptly erased for it. The rest of the women must either accept their lot or use slyer tactics to achieve autonomy, e.g. Iris, and Cleo, who steals in an effort to assert her human presence in an impersonal system. Office Space revels in its characters’ furies – is it as easy to imagine a group of women smashing a fax machine to pieces with a baseball bat while “Still” by Geto Boys plays in the background? Maybe, maybe not, and honestly, it would be interesting to see how different the movies would be if one switched the genders. In any case, such a frame can limit one’s perception of both films, as Iris’s lack of identity and Peter’s need for freedom are universal, and not cleanly bisected under sex difference.

They are quality films, regardless of sex, with Office Space assuredly surviving comparison with Clockwatchers, even if one wanted to balance a comedy and drama on the same scale. You’d do yourself a favor by checking out Jill Sprecher, for in Clockwatchers as well as the very much under-the-radar 13 Conversations about One Thing (a truly great film, drama or not), she has proven herself to be a unique and skilled writer-director, despite a tiny filmography. Office Space, and Mike Judge’s work, as a whole, still swims in the zeitgeist, for employee satisfaction in the corporate workplace has not changed dramatically in the intervening decades between the late 90s and today. Clockwatchers deserves to be held in similar regard.

It’s sad: how many Irises and Petes languish in their jobs in 2021, suffering either endless transience or dead-end drudgery? Exchange cramped cubicles for the hip open offices/communal spaces of Silicon Valley, and only the aesthetics of the predicaments change, not their substance. If given the choice between fixing TPS reports or doing nothing, most would do nothing – or, better yet, do something else that one can invest with personal meaning. Meaning, like identity, is highly valued and sought-for, by young and old, men and women, in today’s workforce, for it is still all-too-easy for an Iris to recede into the formless mass. With the steady encroachment of automation, especially, the dangers of de-personalization are even more imminent, and you’d need something bigger than a baseball bat to beat that particular problem away.

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If you enjoyed this piece, check out the automachination YouTube channel and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include an interview with singer Eva Schubert on writing good songs, a philosophical look at kitsch, aesthetics, and NFTs with UK painter Ethan Pinch, and a long discussion on Edward P. Jones’s classic short story collection, “Lost in the City”.

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