10 great comedies set in the workplace

Working nine to five? What a thing to make a comedy about...

Nine to Five (1980)

Think of comedies set in the workplace and you might think small screen rather than big. After all, sitcoms, with their repeat visits to a cast of characters in an unchanging situation, mimic the weekly routines of daily life.

That’s why so many great TV comedies have tended to be based on, so to speak, the shop floor. There’s Fawlty Towers, Cheers and The Office just for starters.

Movie comedies, by contrast, generally have more licence to roam and escape the daily grind.

Yet think a little harder and it’s clear that plenty of cinematic comedies have turned up to work too. The vast majority of us spend our waking lives making a living at something, so the stresses, frustrations and occasional triumphs of our jobs have plenty of comic – often very blackly comic – potential.

The workplace is the perfect societal microcosm through which to examine issues of capitalism and socialism, classism and sexism. Films such as 1980’s 9 to 5, with Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton taking revenge on their lying, sexist, egotistical bigot of a boss, serve up a crowd-pleasing feminist call-to-arms. One of 2018’s best comedies is Andrew Bujalski’s excellent indie Support the Girls, about a tight-knit female crew at a Hooters-style ‘breastaurant’, which offers a more subtle, wry appreciation of the humour necessary to get through the working day.

Here are 10 other worthy candidates for promotion to this particular pantheon.

Modern Times (1936)

Director: Charles Chaplin

Modern Times (1936)

Perhaps Charlie Chaplin’s greatest achievement, Modern Times is outwardly another outing for the Little Tramp versus the system, yet its focus on increasing mechanised labour doubles as a fierce yet hilarious cry against industrialisation’s dehumanisation. There’s a nod to Fritz Lang’s dystopian landmark Metropolis (1927) in the imposing factory sets, but the famous set pieces are all Chaplin’s own.

The Feeding Machine (“Don’t stop for lunch – be ahead of your competitor!”) seems entirely plausible for today’s sweatshops and Amazon-style warehouses. And is there a greater single movie image of man’s subordination to machine than Chaplin’s body gracefully winding around giant cogs, still hellbent on his manual task?

The Shop around the Corner (1940)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

The Shop around the Corner (1940)

This charming romcom has since been remade a couple of times (including 1998’s You’ve Got Mail), but its nonchalant grace has never been matched. Based on a 1930s Hungarian play, its irresistible hook sees two squabbling work colleagues at a Budapest gift store – James Stewart’s star employee and confident newbie Margaret Sullavan – unknowingly fall for each other as anonymous pen pals. 

Director Ernst Lubitsch was more typically suited to showcasing idle upper-class follies, but he makes himself at home in Matuschek’s cosy shop. There’s a nostalgic innocence here for pre-war central Europe and family enterprise, yet it’s undercut with the brutal reality of losing your job – perhaps even your business. Privileging Stewart’s awareness over Sullavan’s may feel somewhat imbalanced, but ultimately the Yuletide setting makes for an elegant, cinematic Christmas stocking, overflowing with treats and crafted with that patented, silken, Lubitsch ‘touch’. 

I’m All Right, Jack (1959)

Director: John Boulting

I’m All Right, Jack (1959)

Land of hopelessness and vainglory: the Boulting brothers’ post-war, state-of-the-nation satire takes no prisoners, pitting sly trade unions against devious big business. And, pointedly, it’s no working-class ‘angry young man’ exploited by both sides, but rather Ian Carmichael’s naive, mild-mannered, upper-class do-gooder, who inadvertently provokes a national strike. Cronyism has no class.

With its missile manufacturers, covert arms deals and Middle Eastern clients, not to mention the resurgence of a more militant labour force, the film feels entirely, even uncannily, contemporary. It even ends with a free-for-all on a TV debate programme.

As for the cast, it’s a Who’s Who of national treasures, with Terry-Thomas, Richard Attenborough, Irene Handl, Margaret Rutherford and Dennis Price strutting their considerable stuff. Then there’s Peter Sellers’ breakout role as shop steward Fred Kite, a wonderful blend of idealism and opportunism: a walking bellwether for Brexit Britain and a half-baked union, Jack.

The Apartment (1960)

Director: Billy Wilder

The Apartment (1960)

A fast-track guide to toxic masculinity long before the term was common currency, Billy Wilder’s best picture Oscar winner is a wondrous blend of the cynical and romantic. Jack Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter allows executives at his company to use his apartment for illicit trysts. But his cheap shot at climbing the corporate ladder stumbles when the object of his own affections, Shirley MacLaine’s elevator operator, Fran Kubelik, is revealed as a pawn in his Baxter’s own boss’s seedy games.

Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond take their melancholy farce to some truly dark places. Wintry New York streets for a lonely company man are purgatory. And for all the tennis-racket-as-spaghetti-strainer hi-jinks, there’s a rare, tender desperation here. The capper is Wilder’s refusal to sentimentalise, acknowledging the transactional value of every relationship in a closing line to rival even his own Some Like It Hot’s classic sign-off: “Shut up and deal.” 

Broadcast News (1987)

Director: James L. Brooks

Broadcast News (1987)

James L. Brooks’ best film didn’t get the multiple awards or audiences of his two most popular hits, Terms of Endearment (1983) and As Good as It Gets (1997). But despite its 30-plus-years age – practically prehistoric in media terms – it arguably holds up even better today. That’s chiefly because of its evergreen depiction of an embattled TV news station and its hustling network of presenters, editors and everyone in-between. Modern technology and digital capability might be comparatively light years ahead, but human desires, ambitions and vulnerabilities don’t date. 

Brooks nails the frenetic, splenetic pace of down-to-the-wire deadlines and late-breaking scoops, and  in William Hurt’s pretty but vacant anchor-in-waiting, Albert Brooks’ smart but flop-sweating reporter and Holly Hunter’s brilliant but conflicted producer he’s created one of the smartest romcom love triangles. Hunter’s Jane Craig, in particular, so controlling yet vulnerable that she schedules her crying jags, is one of the era’s great female lead roles.

Clerks (1994)

Director: Kevin Smith

Clerks (1994)

Up there with Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Swingers (1996) as quintessential 1990s American indie success stories, Kevin Smith’s DIY debut movie tapped into his own wage-slave frustrations, but to far more potent effect than the hapless convenience store drones we follow through one miserable and unexpected work shift.

Shot at night and funded on credit cards, Clerks is an object lesson is using your own resources wisely – namely the store you work in as your location, and your own rambling, ribald pop-culture monologues and slacker ennui as fuel and theme.

Smith’s verbosity and profanity became patented soon enough, but don’t underestimate just what a breath of fresh air this lo-fi feature was on release. Its rudimentary look (in fuzzy monochrome, no less) and acting work in its favour to offer a portrait of Generation X without Reality Bites’ Hollywood gloss. A view askew, for sure, but scrappy, funny and authentic.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

Director: Joel Coen

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

A circle. “You know, for kids.” It’s the brainwave prototype idea of mailroom lackey Norville Barnes, entering Hudsucker Industries just as its head honcho swan dives off the 45th floor (counting the mezzanine).

Barnes’ circular sketch looks so flat that Paul Newman’s scheming vice-president sets him up as a patsy to ruin the company, depress the stock and siphon off the profits. But this gizmo is more well-rounded than it appears – and the same goes for the Coen brothers, here on top form with their sorely underrated screwball homage.

Numerous delights include Jennifer Jason Leigh’s fast-talking reporter, Newman deliciously hamming up rare screen villainy, and one of the most inventive montages you’ll ever see as Barnes’ hula-hoop – for that’s what his circle envisions – takes shape (“The Wacky Circumference?” “The Belly-Go-Round?”). As an accurate portrait of corporate skulduggery, The Hudsucker Proxy is a fun facsimile, but as inspired comic pastiche, it’s the real deal.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

Director: David Frankel

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

Few industries are as ostentatiously ridiculous yet self-serious as fashion, and several films (Pret-à-porter, Zoolander) opt for the easy send-up. What makes this hugely successful comedy work (it) so well is the acknowledgment of haute couture’s whims and fads, balanced with an appreciation of the brutal emotional and physical costs of sashaying to the top in such a cutthroat, glamorous world.

Anne Hathaway’s dowdy tyro journalist is our engaging, wide-eyed guide to catwalk chic. Emily Blunt scene-steals as a hapless assistant. But this is the Meryl Streep Collection. Her Miranda Priestley, a legendary editor and industry power-broker at a Vogue-like fashion bible, is her finest late-career performance: part-Anna Wintour, part-Cruella de Vil, and all the more chilling for tossing off impossible demands with hushed, sing-song menace. She’s smart enough to suggest the fear and (self-)loathing at how this ultimately male-run business strips its star women emotionally bare and fragile. 

Caramel (2007)

Director: Nadine Labaki

Caramel (2007)

A Lebanese beauty parlour proves the perfect look for a workplace comedy focused both on public image and the private sacrifice, anxiety and pain that lie behind the facial masks. Co-writer/director Nadine Labaki also stars as one of the five women, both staff and customers, at this Beirut salon, whose stories branch out, occasionally intertwine yet remain grounded by their connection to head office.

The salon or hairdressers has proved a durable location for ensemble comedies (see British TV’s Desmond’s or African-American movie hits Barbershop and Beauty Shop), with their revolving clientele and an emphasis on sketch-like banter and the vanities and visuals of the latest fashions.

Labaki’s likeable employees also need to juggle their roles within an ostensibly liberated country and culture still with work to do in its perception of women’s potential. As such, it adds welcome tart and bitter tones to Caramel’s inherent sweetness and soft centre.

The Big Short (2015)

Director: Adam McKay

The Big Short (2015)

2008’s financial crash was no laughing matter, nearly bankrupting the global economy and losing many people – though precious few of its instigators – their livelihood. So it’s not the most obvious candidate for a bumptious, rambunctious ensemble comedy (Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling and many more) with the over-caffeinated, lapel-grabbing energy of a Wall Street trading floor.

Improv specialist Adam McKay (Anchorman, Step Brothers) might seem an unlikely guide to methodically explaining bad loans and dubious investments. But his adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book is supremely effective, loaded with rigorous, rapid-fire editing and a sharp, motormouth script so unbelievable it has to be true.

Matching the bankers’ shameless ruthlessness is a nice touch, as McKay and co will do whatever it takes to educate the public about deliberately obscure jargon or blatant greed and fraud. So: here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain…

Comedy Genius, a season of side-splitting film and TV, ran at BFI Southbank, on BFI Player and at venues across the UK, from October 2018 to January 2019.

A Jane Fonda season also ran at BFI Southbank through November to December 2018.

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