You know how in movies, characters say they have jobs, but you hardly ever see them actually, you know, go to work? That is, of course, unless the movie is all about the workplace. With Labor Day weekend upon us, it’s time to reflect upon the Top Ten “Workplace” movies.
So, what defines a “workplace” movie? To make it on this list, the majority of the action in the film has to take place in the workplace, wherever that might be. It doesn’t have to be an office building or anything, but the characters have to spend the majority of their time at the daily grind. It’s all about those workplace dynamics, after all.
10. His Girl Friday (1940)
Directed by Howard Hawks and starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, this 1940 masterpiece is based on the play, The Front Page. When Editor Walter Burns (Grant) learns that former star reporter, who also so happens to be his ex-wife, Hildegard “Hildy” Johnson (Russell) is set to marry someone else and settle down, he pulls out the stops in order to convince her she’s making a huge mistake. Hijinks galore ensue, including sabotage, a number of false arrests and a prison break.
The reason this film works so well is because Howard Hawks decided to change things up and recast the reporter character from the play as not only a woman, but the ex-wife of Burns. The change brings a breath of fresh air to the story, completey changing the dynamic. The chemistry between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell is fantastic (seriously, Cary Grant would have chemistry with a signpost!), making this one of the best “workplace” films around.
9. Up In The Air (2009)
Directed by Jason Reitman and starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, this film follows the rather lonely life of corporate downsizer, Ryan Bingham (Clooney) as flies from city to city, basically firing people for bosses who don’t want to do it themselves. Bingham has himself convinced that he’s perfectly happy living his isolated life, with no real ties to people or things. He finds a like-minded soul in Alex (Farmiga) and the two begin a casual relationship. When Bingham is tasked with taking a freshly graduated Natalie Keener (Kendrick) under his wing, he finds himself questioning his philosophies and whether or not he’s being true to himself.
The film earned Oscar nominations for supporting actresses Farmiga and Kendrick, as well as a Best Picture nom. Although the film came up empty handed, it’s still a poignant picture of isolation and regret in today’s ever changing world. The performances by Clooney, Farmiga and Kendrick are stellar and this is one of those films that stays with you long after the credits role.
8. The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
Directed by David Frankel and starring Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway and Emily Blunt, the film tells the story of Andy Sachs (Hathaway), an aspiring journalist who lands the job of personal assistant to Runway Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Miranda Priestley (Streep). Although Andy initially has issues, with both her duties and Miranda’s senior assistant, Emily (Blunt), she eventually falls under the spell of the world of high fashion. As Miranda begins to groom her as her protégé, Andy realizes that below the glitz and glamour, betrayal runs deep. Eventually, she walks away from it all, needing to be true to herself.
This film earned Meryl Streep an Oscar nod, and with good reason. She brings Miranda Priestley to life, in all of her phony smile, snarky comment, and back-stabbing glory. While the plot of the film is pretty predictable, it’s the chemistry between Hathaway, Blunt and Streep that holds it all together. When you add Stanley Tucci to the mix, the awesomeness flies right off the charts. Publishing, like the movies, is a cut-throat business, but when it’s this well done, you don’t really seem to mind.
7. The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit (1956)
Directed by Nunnally Johnson, and starring Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones, the film tells the story of WWII survivor Tom Rath (Peck), who takes a public relations job at a television network in order to provide for his wife, Betsy (Jones) and his three children. Haunted by his past, and a boss surrounded by yes-men, Tom must find the right balance between work and home, or risk becoming like all the other corporate drones.
This film is the quintessential disgruntled businessman saga. A product of its time, and the collective post war thinking, the film has become synonymous with man’s search for purpose. Gregory Peck shines as the tormented Tom Rath, bringing a real sense of struggle and hopelessness to the character. An excellent film that is still relevant more than 60 years later.
6. Baby Boom (1987)
Directed by Charles Shyer, and starring Diane Keaton, Harold Ramis and Sam Shepard, the film tells the story of career focused, management consultant J.C. Wiatt (Keaton), who inherits a toddler when a cousin she hasn’t seen in more than 30 years, dies. J.C. soon learns that caring for a baby is hard and her career begins to suffer. Eventually, she loses her job and decides a fresh start in Vermont is the answer. Not one to rest on her laurels, she begins selling homemade baby food as a way to get ahead financially. When her old boss offers to buy the company for a tidy profit, J.C. must decide what she truly wants out of life.
This film is the typical fish out of water story, but what I like about it is, it doesn’t use your typical protagonist. It portrays an independent woman who does what needs to be done in order to get ahead. Sure, it has all the typical tropes; a dilapidated house, a cute as pie baby, a love interest, an offer she can’t refuse and yet somehow manages to. What it also has is a strong, capable woman who proves that when you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything. This is a must see for anyone who’s ever had their life thrown into utter chaos and lived to tell about it.
5. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Directed by James Foley, and starring Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin and Kevin Spacey, the film tells the story of four real-estate salesmen, who, over the course of two days, desperately try to keep their jobs when their corporate office tries to motivate them by promising to fire all but the top two salesmen. Lying, cheating, back-stabbing and theft all become par for the course as these men struggle to find a way to make the sale and keep their jobs.
This film is based off the Pulitzer Prize and Tony winning play of the same name by David Mamet. Not only is the cast spectacular, but the performances, as you would expect, are out of this world. While Pacino was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for his portrayal of Ricky Roma, it’s Jack Lemmon’s performance that truly shines. His Shelley Levene is desperate and defeated and you feel it to the marrow of your bones. James Foley shot the film in such a way that it feels close and almost claustrophobic, setting you on the edge before it even begins. A fantastic look at what we’re sometimes forced to do just to stay afloat.
4. 9 To 5 (1980)
Directed by Colin Higgins, and starring Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Dabney Coleman, the film tells the story of Judy Bernly (Fonda), Violet Newstead (Tomlin) and Doralee Rhodes (Parton) as they accidentally kidnap and then overthrow their sexist, egotistical boss, Franklin Hart Jr. (Coleman). While they hold him prisoner, they use the time to make numerous, beneficial changes to the office, leading to a more productive and happier work place. When Hart eventually gets free, he is rewarded for his “excellent work” and promoted to an office overseas, leaving the women to continue what they’ve started.
This film is just fun, through and through. Voted number 74 on the 100 Funniest Movies list by AFI, it showcases a bevy of strong, female characters. What starts out as an accident and a misunderstanding, quickly turns into kidnapping, bribery, and all around insanity. Tomlin, Fonda and Parton play off of each other beautifully, their chemistry and comedic timing leaping off the screen. One of the best workplace comedies around, this film is a must for anyone who loves a good, he gets what he deserves story.
3. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Directed by Pete Docter, and starring, Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi and James Coburn, this animated film tells the story of Sully (Goodman) and Mike (Crystal), two monsters who work at Monsters Inc., collecting the screams of human children to use to power their city. When they accidentally bring a human child into their world, they have to figure out how to get her home without anyone finding out. They soon realize that, not only are children not toxic, as they’ve been led to believe, just about everything they’ve been told is a lie. They must find the truth, before it’s too late.
Bet you didn’t even think of this one when I mentioned workplace movies, did you? But it absolutely fits the criteria. One of Pixar’s best films, Monsters, Inc. encompasses both the buddy comedy and the workplace film. While the story mainly focuses on the relationship between Sully and Mike, and how Boo changes it, it’s their job that brings them together. The majority of the action takes place in the actual scream factory and our heroes must come together to defeat their evil boss and his nefarious plans, all while realizing that things aren’t always what they seem. A definite must see for fans of animation and those that love a good, heartfelt story.
2. Office Space (1999)
Directed by Mike Judge, and starring Ron Livingston, Jennifer Aniston, Stephen Root and Gary Cole, the film tells that story of Peter Gibbons (Livingston), an unhappy programmer who, after a hypnotherapy session where the hypnotist dies, learns to relax and go with the flow. Instead of getting him fired, his new attitude gets him promoted, the head office consultants citing his bluntness about office issues as the deciding factor. When he realizes that two of his co-workers are being let go, the three of them decide to embezzle funds from the company, a fraction of a cent at a time, so that no one will notice. A computer glitch puts their plan in jeopardy, but they’re eventually saved when another disgruntled employee exacts his revenge on the company.
So, this film is hilarious. Although each of the characters are over-exaggerated stereotypes, they play off of each other beautifully, each adding something different to the overall neuroses of the group. The feeling of resignation and despair permeates from these characters, who feel trapped in a cubicle in this dot com world we live in. The dialogue is quick and sharp and Livingston is fantastic as the disgruntled guy who gets to live what he thought he wanted, until he realizes it’s not what he thought it would be. This film is a must see for just about everyone who loves a great satire.
1.Working Girl (1988)
Directed by Mike Nicols and starring Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver, the film tells the story of Tess McGill (Griffith), a secretary from Staten Island who gets assigned to executive Katherine Parker (Weaver). At first, Parker seems to support Tess and her ideas in regards to Trask Industries, but in reality is planning on passing them off as her own. When Tess finds out, she pretends to be an executive and pitches her idea to Jack Trainer (Ford). Trainer is intrigued by the idea and by Tess. Eventually she is found out and confronted by Katherine in front of everyone. When Katherine can’t prove the idea was hers to begin with she’s fired and Tess is offered a position at Trask.
This movie is the ultimate workplace film, especially when you get past the 80’s shell that it’s got going on. While the hair and the fashion are truly planted in the decade of excess, the story at the heart of it all is timeless. Someone uses their smarts and their wits to outsmart the evil overlord and reaps the benefits of being honest. Again, I love this movie because at its centre is a strong, female protagonist. Tess is a down on her luck nobody who pulls herself up and puts herself out there. Griffith and Ford have great chemistry and Weaver chews up the scenery as the conniving Katherine. This was also the first movie where I noticed Harrison Ford as an actor and not just an action hero. It didn’t help to alleviate the wicked crush I had on him then. The film garnered a handful of Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and won Golden Globes for Actress, Supporting Actress and Best Motion Picture-Musical or Comedy. It’s a typical Mike Nicols film that not only brings the charm but a good dose of heart along with it. This is a must see for any film fan.
This was a really tough list to compile, and there are a few honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the list but are still worth a watch:
Broadcast News (1987), starring William Hurt, Albert Brooks and Holly Hunter, about the goings on in a television news room.
Trading Places (1983), starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, about a commodities trader and a homeless man who are inadvertently caught up in an elaborate bet.
Waitress (2007), starring Kerri Russell, Nathan Fillion and Andy Griffith, about a small town waitress trapped in an abusive marriage, who dreams of getting out.
Norma Rae (1979), starring Sally Field and Beau Bridges, about a cotton mill worker, fed up with poor working conditions, who takes on management and forces unionization of the factory.
This is just a small portion of the workplace films out there, but these are some of my favorites. You may, or may not agree with my list, but one thing’s for sure, when it comes to the workplace, there’s plenty of drama, hijinks and laughter to go around.
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