You’re Gonna Make It-At Least to 5 O’Clock

Jill Sprecher’s Clockwatchers , from a screenplay by Ms. Sprecher and her sister, Karen Sprecher, has been described in the production notes as “Mary Tyler Moore meets Franz Kafka,” but Clockwatchers reminds me more of the prize-winning comic strip Dilbert , by Scott Adams, with traces of Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury and Cathy Guisewite’s Cathy , all of which tell me more about the inner crankiness and pain of the American white-collar labor force than all the celebratory essays and editorials on this country’s economic miracle.

Co-scenarists Jill and Karen Sprecher know the bumpy terrain of office temps firsthand, inasmuch as they both held such positions at one time or another. Yet the very imaginative film that has emerged from their knowledgeable collaboration is neither single-minded nor simple-minded about its subject. They have avoided the luridly trendy temptations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination to spice up the proceedings. Being a temp is hell enough, it is suggested, without the addition of mustache-twirling melodrama. The film focuses instead on the differing strategies of four distinctly different young women in coping with the deadening routines and requirements of office work in an architecturally absurdist environment. Hence, the aptness of the film’s title.

Iris (Toni Collette) is the newcomer who gets a few chuckles at the outset by not only not speaking until she is spoken to by her superior, but by virtually not breathing as well. As we and her co-workers get to know her better, she emerges as a classic passive-aggressive type, not entirely lacking in the necessary animal cunning to survive and endure in the soul-destroying jungle inhabited by temps. Still, in the beginning, she finds her three comrades in temporary servitude more than willing to admit her into their small circle of creative goof-offs.

Margaret (Parker Posey) is the most accomplished mistress of malfunction in the group, but, paradoxically, she is the one most anxious to gain a permanent position and the loss of her virtual anonymity in the organization. For her part, Paula (Lisa Kudrow) reconciles herself to her lowly status with fantasies of making it big as an actress, despite one disappointing audition after another. Jane (Alanna Ubach) is content to toil away until Mr. Right appears on the horizon to liberate her from office work altogether.

The interplay of the four temps and the four in-sync actresses who play them is delightful to behold, as each struggles with the difficult task of establishing a personal identity without betraying the solidarity of the foursome. Only when their emotional union has been shattered are there any poignant regrets about what might have been, and what might have lasted.

Though Ms. Collette’s Iris ultimately evolves into the observant raisonneur -heroine of the piece, Ms. Posey’s Margaret generates the most emotion with her patented mixture of bravado and vulnerability. The expression on her face is a study in pathos when she discovers belatedly that she has failed to rally the troops in a pathetic insurrection against their enslavers. Far from being a Valentine to the woman’s movement, Clockwatchers demonstrates that when push comes to shove, the Darwinian imperatives of the capitalistic system do not differentiate between genders. Indeed, women are perhaps more prone to betrayal than men.

This is not to suggest that Clockwatchers is nothing more than a stale slice of social realism, or a dull diatribe against dead-end jobs. Iris, Margaret, Paula and Jane neither ask for our pity, nor do they deserve it. They are all standing near the precipice of terminal career disaster, but they are at a transitional stage of their lives when they are still young enough to temporize before adjusting their dreams to the realities of their abilities and opportunities. They are neither whimperingly helpless nor stridently ambitious. Consequently, they are often playful, witty and funny as they make light of their ridiculous predicaments.

Claude Chabrol was more pessimistic and more passionate about the Parisian equivalents of these kinds of nice girls in Les Bonnes Femmes (1960). Ms. Sprecher, more hopefully American than Mr. Chabrol, leaves at least one door open in Clockwatchers for escape from the hell of the temp to the purgatory of comparatively permanent employment in the white-collar work force.

At times, however, Clockwatchers takes on a surreal look as it suggests the continual nightmares occurring in the souls of working-class individuals, whose value to society is increasingly measured more by how much they consume rather than by how much they produce. Ms. Sprecher and her collaborators do not deal with these weighty issues, but their sprightly fable makes an audience think amid its smiles and chuckles.

Dead Man Walking

Vyacheslav Krishtofovich’s A Friend of the Deceased , from a screenplay by Andreï Kourkov, reminds us that as bad as the most censorious among us consider life in the United States, life in the former Soviet Union, of which Ukraine was once a reluctant part, is considerably worse. For example, the presumably exploited young women temps in Clockwatchers at least get regular paychecks. Anatoli (Alexandre Lazarev), the well-educated protagonist of A Friend of the Deceased , cannot even count on the small pittance he is supposed to receive for translating commercial documents from English into Russian. Unpaid for one translation, he is given a second assignment with the probably false promise that he will be paid for both translations after he turns in the second one.

Unable to make a decent living as an intellectual in Kiev, the picturesque capital of a bankrupt country, he is unwilling to lower his class status by taking a job as a manual laborer. At first, he is almost equally unwilling to accept any jobs tainted with illegality, a scrupulous attitude that makes him something of an oddity in crime-ridden Kiev. Mr. Lazarev is a handsome young actor who portrays Anatoli with a kind of laid-back charisma befitting a lethargic character who might have stepped out of the pages of Nikolai Gogol or Anton Chekhov, but without the privileged luxury and aristocratic lineage to emulate the immortally only half-awake title character in Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov .

Anatoli’s woes extend to his failing marriage with his wife, Katia, a whiz at her advertising agency and on the verge of running off with her boss. What little we see of their life together in their cluttered apartment suggests that they behave more like emotionally and sexually detached roommates than like husband and wife. Still, Anatoli becomes so depressed when Katia finally runs off for good that he relaxes his scruples sufficiently to agree to perjure himself for a businessman seeking “evidence” against his wife in a messy divorce case. This episode is played out in all its moral squalor, and, from that point on, Anatoli is prepared to sell himself for whatever the traffic will bear.

The comic irony of the film is achieved with a combination of the casually devil-may-care expressions of Anatoli, and the perversely beautiful pictorialism of the Kiev cityscape and landscape. One would think we were looking at a light romance rather than at a dark and deadly comedy. The pace quickens predictably when the director and scenarist trot out a plot gambit that I have seen too often on the screen, and very recently in the forthcoming comedy Bulworth , and that is Anatoli’s hiring of a contract killer to do him in simply because he is too squeamish to do the job himself. I have never heard of anyone doing this in real life, in all my exhaustive perusal of the tabloid press. Then, of course, just as Anatoli has set off his own personal time bomb, he discovers good reasons to stay alive, and since no contract killing in Kiev can be rescinded in midstream, as it were, Anatoli must hire a second contract killer to kill the first.

What happens finally is the cream of the jest, and contributes to an impression of triumphant corruption and criminality in Kiev seeping into the psyches of its numbly amoral and fatalistic citizens. The last images and sounds of the film, however, remind us of the vast depths of guilt, shame and conscience swirling about in the great soul of the former Soviet Union.