Happy early Labor Day, if you’re stuck working or otherwise not out getting a jump on the holiday weekend — a weekend mostly remembered for its proximity to the end of summer, last chances to get wasted at the lake, and so on. But lest we forget, Monday’s holiday is an observance and celebration of the hard work and strength of the American worker, so in that spirit, let us tip our hats to the fictional employees who toil away at the most repulsive workplaces captured on film.
Initech/Chotchkie’s (Office Space)
When contemplating cinematic realizations of workplace hell, Office Space is certainly an obvious choice. But things become obvious for a reason — and in the case of Mike Judge’s 1999 flop-turned-cult-fave, it’s not just for the spot-on portrayal of soul-crushing cubicle work, with the endless reports and numerous superiors and mirthless birthday parties. Don’t forget how exquisitely Judge also nails the forced quirkiness of zany chain restaurants in the scenes at flair-obsessed Chotchckie’s (an angle revisited and recycled in 2005’s Waiting, which might as well be a straight-to-DVD Office Space sequel).
Consolidated Life (The Apartment)
Before Office Space, the go-to conceptualization of corporate drone life was found in Billy Wilder’s 1960 masterpiece, in its images of a vast, open skyscraper floor, filled to the grid with identical desks, manned by seemingly identical employees. But it wasn’t just that Jack Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter was stuck in a dead-end job where his only happiness came via brief interactions with the elevator operator (Shirley MacLaine); it was that his skeezy boss (Fred MacMurray) and his fellow executives felt free to use C.C.’s bachelor pad as a love nest for their illicit assignations. As you watch poor Baxter wander the park, waiting for his superiors to get off, you can’t help but wonder if he ever considered getting into another line of work.
Super Club (Employee of the Month)
Not that it’s probably all that terrible to work in a Costco-/Sam’s-style bulk-sale warehouse club. But Jesus, any job where you have to work with Dane Cook…
Premier Properties (Glengarry Glen Ross)
The busted-out Chicago real estate agents in James Foley’s adaptation of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize winner have got it bad enough, what with the terrible properties they’re trying to sling to indifferent prospects. But when you add in the foul-mouthed rant of a “motivational speech” they get via a visiting hotshot from “downtown” (Alec Baldwin), and dealing every day with the spineless worm who runs their office (Kevin Spacey), well, it becomes clear Fifty Shades Darker won’t be the first movie James Foley directs about masochists.
Keystone Studios (Swimming with Sharks)
Spacey again, this time moving into the expletive-spewing, lead asshole position as Buddy Ackerman, a studio exec whose daily business seems less about making movies and more about making his assistant (Frank Whaley) miserable. Spacey makes for a great white-collar villain — obviously, since he basically reprised the role in Horrible Bosses — and if this portrayal of a film-production hellscape rings true, it should; writer/director George Huang based it on his own time in the studio assistant trenches.
Runway Magazine (The Devil Wears Prada)
Ackerman was an intolerable employer, to be sure, but his brand of intimidation and humiliation pales in comparison to Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), the ruthlessly intelligent (and not at all Anna Wintour-inspired) emotional terrorist who runs Runway magazine, similarly making every moment of the workday a nerve-racking test of heroine Andy’s (Anne Hathaway) mettle.
Consolidated Companies (9 to 5)
In and of itself, Consolidated is a good enough place to work: steady paycheck, good people, immaculate break room. The problem is who runs the place: “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” Franklin M. Hart Jr. (Dabney Coleman), the most loathsome boss in ‘80s movies, which is saying something. He’s such a no-good sonofabitch — lying, backstabbing, sexual harassing, you name it — that the trio of employees at the movie’s center (Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton) end up kidnapping the jerk and remaking Consolidated into their ideal workplace. And it’s very hard to blame them.
I mean, imagine being a lower-class worker type, toiling away all day at the menial job that makes your city run and keeps the aristocrats in the towers living a life of ease and comfort. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: such imaginative futuristic science fiction!
Jimmy “The Gent” Conway’s Crew (GoodFellas)
Sure, the pay is good (nothing like a fat roll of bills in your pocket to get the feeling of a job well done). The meals are delicious (for the record: that trick with the razor blade and the garlic totally works). And the benefits are outstanding (how about that front-row treatment at the Copa?). But I gotta say, there’s not much job security to speak of at a gig where you might end up frozen stiff in the back of a meat truck.
The Death Star (Star Wars; Return of the Jedi)
As noted in Clerks, you take certain chances when you go to work for an evil empire. Still, we don’t know these stories — maybe some poor schmuck just wanted to support the family, saw a 401k with a really lucrative company match, and decided to just grind it out for a couple of years. Or, even worse, imagine going to some job fair and ending up on the in-construction second Death Star, but comforting yourself with the notion of, “Hey, if it’s been blown up once, what are the chances it’ll get hit again?”