The Temp

The high-stakes, cutthroat, turn-on-a-dime world of cookies
★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1993
Director: 
Tom Holland
Starring: 
Lara Flynn Boyle, Timothy Hutton, Faye Dunaway, Oliver Platt, Steven Weber
The Setup: 
Psycho temp aims to climb the corporate ladder by eliminating all in her way.
Discussion: 

It’s not every movie that goes out of its way to earn the epithets showered upon it. And this one works overtime to ensure that it more than measures up to the vaunted standard we call a “total abortion.”

Like a blender on ‘puree’ with no lid on top, this movie throws everything in every direction for the momentary ‘ooh’ factor it might dredge up, without a care in the world as to whether it will all make sense. I was obviously totally disdainful of it when it was out, but somehow last week I became possessed to see it, and see it IMMEDIATELY.

We open with Timothy Hutton with Judge Reinhold hair as Peter, in therapy. His therapist is terminating with him on the spur of the moment—no long closure sessions for them—but advises Peter to “make sure that Mr. Hyde is dead,” because we don’t want a recurrence of “these episodes” that drove his wife away. Peter had apparently been driven to jealous paranoid fits, and now that he’s better he’s going to try to win his wife back. The way I tell you this, you’d think that this whole plot strand is going to go somewhere, wouldn’t you?

Peter is a marketing something or other for Mrs. Appleby’s, a company that makes something [we never quite find out what—maybe muffins?] but is now expanding into cookies. Oliver Platt plays a snide yuppie scumbag, and Faye Dunaway is the executive in charge of the whole team. This film is nice in giving us a generous dose of Faye right up front, so we don’t have to wait. In filmmaking parlance, this process is known as “Faye-loading.”

But! Their company is being taken over! Jobs are going to be slashed, and Peter needs to compile a cost-benefit analysis of the whole cookie-industrial-complex overnight, or it’s curtains for him! To make matters worse, his assistant, Lance, has a wife in labor and he abandons his job in order to be at her side as a new life is brought into this world. We will not discuss how realistic it is that a male secretary named Lance is in any way siring a baby. Peter plays it like this REPORT is so much more essential than having a baby [you can have one of those anytime], and we’re like—are we supposed to understand that Peter is total soulless yuppie asshole? No, he gets redeemed soon enough, but it’s a rough start. Peter falls asleep watching Arsineo Hall [whom I had TOTALLY forgotten] and when he wakes, is sure his job is lost. A fact that he is curiously calm about.

But wait! Who is this leggy assistant in his office? Why, it’s Lara Flynn Boyle of Twin Peaks and The Practice, as Kris, the temp worker assigned to his office. She whips up what looks like a 100-page report [that dissects the practice of cookie-making back to the dark ages—not kidding] in just under three hours. Please note how Kris snnnneeeeaaaks up toward the copy machine in front of the line of people assembled there, then barges in. The report gets delivered, Faye is happy, and Kris saved Peter’s ass.

Then Faye, who has had a bit of work done by this point—a bit of unfortunate work—delivers a speech to the assembled company. Then Kris shows Peter a picture of her husband and baby, Mark and Lizzie. Kris takes over Peter’s home finances—which you would REALLY think is going to go somewhere, but no—and we are introduced to Peter’s friend Steven Weber, who is a worker at the rival cookie company. Steven worries that the cutthroat world of cookies might tear their friendship apart.

Next Kris and Peter are working late, with Kris dressed and dolled up as though she’s ready for a night at Portland’s hottest clubs, and visibly PANTING in her trembling excitement about cookie marketing. She has the unprecedented idea that they should market the oatmeal cookies as healthy, and put a big heart on the container, an idea so innovative and new it floors all who hear it.

Now, I have worked in a few different marketing departments and for interactive ad agencies, and one of the pleasures of this movie for me was its ludicrously off vision of what life at a high-stakes marketing agency [in Portland, Oregon, btw] is like—all cutthroat business, everyone stabbing each other in the back, having fabulous work-sponsored lunches, lining up five deep for the copy machine, and a glamorous but over-the-hill marketing executive who shouts “I Love it!” and, when that same idea tanks: “I should have never let you talk me into this!” There’s also the whole—quite common—perception that workers at ad agencies end up staying at work deep into the night simply in order to come up with the right idea, rather than to complete the arduous work of actually PRODUCING the piece, which is what takes the real work. And let’s not forget that behind all of this is the reality that we’re talking about COOKIES. Is the world of oatmeal raisin cookies REALLY so fast-paced and cutthroat that cookie marketing plans are treated like state secrets and fear of corporate spies is ever-present? Could be, I guess, though it seems more the screenwriter saw a few movies that take place in an ad agency and based his writing on that. Another whole sheen on this is the view of the business world of the 90s vacuuming up people’s life happiness and chewing up their personal lives, then spitting them out when they’re fired at the drop of a dime. Reality can be harsh, folks!

So at one point Peter mentions that Lance will be coming back and that Kris will have to go, and we can see that this does not sit well with her. She switches to being Jack’s [Oliver Platt’s] assistant, and makes it perfectly clear that she doesn’t mind using her body to get ahead, which drives Peter crazy. “He’s going to pump you for information!” Peter wails. “Interesting choice of words,” Kris responds.

So Lance comes back to an office so organized he can’t get any work done. Then there’s the matter of the shredder. Frankly I did not know that these machines had three rows of five-inch blades in them, but apparently deadly technology is common in the everyday office setting. Lance unplugs the shredder from the ten outlets right next to each other with 17 machines [none of them visible] plugged into them [the crappy office environment of the 90s!], but of course we know that he’s about to get mangled. He does—if you slow down you can see his fingers get bent back and shredded by the blades, and so Lance is out, and Kris back in. One thing I did like about the movie is that it is punctuated by quick bursts of relatively nasty violence.

Now she’s back with Peter who asks her to explain a question on every audience member’s mind: “If you’re so smart then why are you a temp?” It seems that brilliant Kris is worried about being perceived as jumping jobs, so she temps at places to see if she likes the company, without having to put it all on her resume. “We marry our jobs and I want to be sure.” I guess the whole concept of simply not including a job on your resume is inconceivable in the 90s, when one’s job history is akin to a police record. Anyway, Peter tells her to make a note to kill Jack, to which she ominously responds “Yes, Mr. Dearns.” A scene or two later Jack has been wasped on the side of the road. He’s allergic to wasps.

So Kris is shooting up the corporate ladder, which next finds her at a taste test of the Oatmeal cookie that is apparently poised to rock the very foundation of Western society, but something’s missing. Kris suggests molasses, which is treated as though it’s a rare substance some have heard of but few have tasted. I mention all this only to bring your attention to the presence of Susan, a somewhat plain-looking woman in the office who takes an immediate dislike to Kris, who made my night with her hyper-smarmy delivery of the line “Besides, molasses would be cost-prohibitive.”

During all this there are a few scenes with Peter’s wife Sharon, played by Maura Tierney. They make plans to have dinner. Now at this point I thought that the climax of the story would take place at Peter’s home [which, as required by the conventions of ____-from-hell thrillers, is under renovation and filled with ladders and drop cloths], ending with a strong statement about how Peter is going to commit to his wife and put family first, but no, after another scene or two Maura disappears entirely.

But now that they are finding love again, Peter has his wife’s picture on the wall, which causes Kris to fume. She invites him for a drink that night, where she makes an explicit sexual invitation. Peter refuses, and you can watch Lara whip out the acting as you see her face turn from disappointment to seething fury without so much as moving her head [it’s around 39:56, check it out]. Then she and Peter walk outside, and Kris gets up close in a way that doesn’t look so good to Sharon—who is having dinner in plain view of the proceedings! The reconciliation dinner she was supposed to be having with Peter! Before Kris messed up his plans!

Somewhere in here Peter is going to fire Kris, but she’s been promoted to equal with him. This leads Susan to spout another amusing line: “I may not kiss ass like Kris, but I’m gonna start kicking it!”

Cut to a supermarket, where a woman is giving out samples of the cookies to an old woman and a 90s sk8tr girl with yellow hair who is riding her skateboard IN the store. They eat the cookies and soon dribbles of blood are drooling from their mouths. Apparently when shrapnel is shredding your gums, you get pretty far along before you feel it. I know it’s always been that way with me. Anyway, consumers at a supermarket free trial stand are puking blood! Where are you going to find another movie with a scene like that?

This leads Faye to storm in, apparently straight off the tennis court or from the gym, and this is when she unleashes the “should have never let me talk you into this” line, and another favorite, “we’ve GOT to stop the bleeding…” Susan says she’ll handle the media and Faye whines “But Kris is camera-friendly!” as she gestures first at Susan, then Kris, as if to say “LOOK how hideous you are next to her!” Kris makes a company statement on TV, and by this time Peter is fully convinced that she’s an evil wench from hell, although everyone else thinks he’s just paranoid and misogynist. Speaking of that, how awesome would it be if Neil LaBute were to do a remake?

And now the company picnic. Kris, you will soon surmise, as brought a variety of outfits and looks that can be deployed on the go. Girl reads her Glamour do’s and don’ts. Kris, by the way, sports a DIZZYING amount and variety of hairstyles throughout the film. Anyway, she makes an even MORE obvious come-on to Peter in the lake. Now, I was all set to hold myself above the common fray that would cheaply fall in for a tactic such as freezing a frame of Kris holding her bathing suit behind her face so that it looks like a long, gooey snot is dangling from her nostril, but you see how well I succeeded.

SPOILERS > > >
Then Kris and Peter are up for the same promotion. Then she’s masturbating in her bed while Peter gets caught as a peeping tom outside. Then she’s having dinner with Peter’s friend Steven Weber. Somewhere in here she says that her only motivation in life is to serve her boss as best she can—hold on to that one, folks, it’s about as close to motivation and psychology as we’re going to get. She says that she’s sleeping with Faye. She breaks into Peter’s house and stacks the chairs, Poltergeist-style. Then it turns out that the rival cookie company [the one Weber works for] is introducing the same cookie with the same packaging, and Peter is caught with the recipe on his computer. Then Peter and Weber have a huge fight in an alley. Peter almost loses his job—then Kris gets it back for him, and he is promoted to vice president. And poor Sarah is transferred to Michigan to work on the frozen vegetables accounts… which struck me as terribly funny for some reason.

Then Peter gets a message relayed from Faye [but is it really from her?] to meet her at the factory. Peter finds someone dead, and then there’s this whole tussle—and suddenly it seems like the murderer was FAYE ALL ALONG! But before Faye falls to her glorious death she wheezes “The picture!” to Peter. Next day in the office, Peter sees multiple copies of the man and little girl Kris said was her family, Mark and Lizzie. What’s with this? he asks the woman there. “It comes with the frame,” she says. With Faye out, Peter is now president, and he fires Kris. The end! Or is it? I would guess that given the situation, and knowing Kris, quite a lawsuit looms ahead for this company should they try to fire her for no real reason.

So the ending is mega-lame. There was apparently heavy fiddling by the Paramount brass on this one, and the ending was definitely re-shot and tacked on. There’s a rumor it was changed because Faye didn’t want to appear in a bad light, which sounds narcissistic, but can seem reasonable when you consider how her career tanked after Mommie Dearest because everyone thought SHE was really mean. It seems like the original ending had Faye as the killer, which is pretty dumb, as what motivation would she have? But looking back, you see that we never get much direct evidence, only implications, that Kris is behind everything that happens. I would have been happy with an ending in which Kris was promoted above or equal to Peter, Faye is framed as the killer, and the last shot is the whole thing with the pictures that come with the frame. But alas.
< < < SPOILERS END

As it is it’s a massive mess—albeit a relatively fun one. I would have liked a little motivation on the part of Kris; why is she so crazy? Why does she want to be a great assistant rather than be the boss herself? What happened in her past? We’ll never find out. There are also so many strands that seem to be heading to promising places but just never pan out. I thought for a while that Kris would get ahead of Peter in the corporate hierarchy and then start making life a living hell for him, which I would have been into, but that never really happens either. It just kind of throws a bunch of junk out there until it’s time for the movie to end.

It’s too bad this movie had to happen to Lara Flynn Boyle’s fledgling movie career because she’s pretty good and certainly a lot of fun to watch. She plays a convincing scary nutcase, and the whole movie is done in such a way [and our hero, Peter, is so bland and whiny] that you really start rooting for her. I would have been more than happy, in a Last Seduction sort of way, for her to come out on top through her nasty but smart machinations, and leave all the doofusy do-gooders in her dust. Besides, anyone who skips the step of trying to engage co-workers in a constructive dialogue within a safe environment of mutual trust and respect and goes straight to shredder-based mangling and on-road wasping is aces with me.

Should you watch it: 

If you know what you’re in for. It’s a mess, but I had a great time watching it, and as I write this I have all sorts of fond memories for it.