Jobs take up a huge portion of our lives, and even while we’re spending less time physically at our job sites these days, we’re certainly thinking about work as much as we ever have. Films centered on the workplace tap into a shared experience for most people: we may not all work in offices or at prestigious fashion magazines, but almost everyone can relate to the strange dynamics that exist between workers and their bosses, colleagues, and employees. And since a lot of people have been temporarily exiled from their offices, these workplace films are a refreshingly low-stress way to bring the office to you. They’ll either remind you of everything you love about your work or make you grateful for the time away!
“The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” (1956)
dir. Nunnally Johnson
“The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” is a classic social commentary pointing out the flaws in corporate America and the ceaseless pursuit of the American dream. In it, Gregory Peck plays World War II veteran Tom Rath who is under constant pressure to advance professionally. As he attempts to climb the corporate ladder and provide the perfect suburban life for his family, he is forced to compromise his own individual values in favor of the “yes man” conformity his new, more prestigious job demands.
“The Devil Wears Prada” (2006)
dir. David Frankel
In “The Devil Wears Prada,” Anne Hathaway plays an ambitious aspiring writer who battles her way through an ultra-demanding assistant position at a fashion magazine with the understanding that a year there will open doors for her at any magazine or newspaper she wants. It depicts the notoriously brutal atmosphere in many glamorous, prestigious industries, where so many people want to work there they’ll put up with any abuse. Meryl Streep plays Miranda Priestly, a demon executive in a particularly unsubtle homage to Anna Wintour (her former assistant wrote the book that “The Devil Wears Prada” is based on). But she’s also every boss who refuses to dial down the toxicity because that’s what they had to go through when they were coming up in the industry, and they’re under the impression that it made them stronger.
“Empire Records” (1995)
dir. Allan Moyle
“Empire Records” treats the workplace with a distinctly more positive touch, focusing on the community that develops among a group of young record store employees. Their relationships drive the film as they establish their own tiny kingdom within the four walls of the independent retailer. And when their jobs (and by extension, the world that they’ve built for themselves) come under fire, they team up against the soulless corporate chain that wants to buy out the store. Their rebellious spirit serves as a reminder to protect small businesses everywhere.
“Working Girl” (1988)
dir. Mike Nichols
A key entry in the 1980s “women in the workplace” genre, “Working Girl” stars Melanie Griffith as an ambitious, working-class secretary at a Wall Street firm with dreams of being an executive one day. Unfortunately, her devious boss (Sigourney Weaver) has plans to take credit for all of her ideas. But when she discovers this scheme, she comes up with one of her own: posing as her boss and pitching the ideas directly to the clients herself. It’s one of the few films that explore the complicated relationships between women in corporate offices, especially when there’s a power differential involved.
dir. Kevin Smith
“I’m not even supposed to be here today!” is the oft-repeated refrain of the downtrodden hourly worker forced to go in on their day off. A bare-bones, quirky independent film, Kevin Smith’s feature debut “Clerks” depicts a day in the life of two perpetually put-upon retail employees. Its absurdist qualities and limited action perfectly capture the tedium of life in the service industry, boredom only broken up by the occasional irritating presence of a customer.
“9 to 5” (1980)
dir. Colin Higgins
“9 to 5” is the story of what happens when men continually harass their female colleagues until the women have had enough and take their revenge. Three secretaries plot against their sexist boss who is abusive to his female employees, spreads sexual rumors about them, steals their ideas, and passes them over for promotions. So naturally, he deserves everything he gets. It would be great if this film, now forty years old, was no longer relevant to the lives of women in the workplace, but for many it remains frustratingly familiar.
“The Apartment” (1960)
dir. Billy Wilder
Who hasn’t had a boss with absolutely no sense of boundaries? Almost everyone has some cringe-worthy story about supervisors who’ve crossed some sort of line, although admittedly Jack Lemmon in “The Apartment” takes the cake. When his bosses discover he has an apartment in a prime Upper West Side location, they ask to use it as a site for their extramarital affairs. Although he’s uncomfortable with the idea, it’s hard to say no to the people who hold your career in their hands, and he reluctantly agrees, proving once and for all that scruples and integrity have no place in corporate America!
“Glengarry Glen Ross” (1992)
dir. James Foley
“Glengarry Glen Ross” masterfully depicts the darker side of the sales industry. The all-consuming pressure to meet seemingly arbitrary quotas, the constant cycle of employees being punished for the lack of sales by giving them increasingly less promising sales leads, and the hyper-competitiveness that leads to hostility between colleagues. It’s difficult to imagine a more toxic work environment than the one presented in “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Alec Baldwin’s short but iconic motivational speech alone is enough to establish its warped vision of success.
“Modern Times” (1936)
dir. Charlie Chaplin
“Modern Times” is one of the classic cinematic satires about a worker feeling like he’s little more than a cog in a machine. Charlie Chaplin stars as a man working on an assembly line in a factory, whose constant repetitive motions in the face of demands for increased productivity drive him to the brink of a nervous breakdown. He eventually overcomes his work-induced madness, but not without a healthy portion of the hijinks and physical comedy we’ve come to expect from Chaplin.
“Office Space” (1999)
dir. Mike Judge
Is there any more perfect comedy about the plight of office drudgery than “Office Space?” Ron Livingston is Peter, a software tech who has long since come to terms with quietly loathing his job. But after being hypnotized into a state of more or less permanent relaxation, he loses the burning need to play office politics. A brutal commentary on the absurdities of corporate culture, “Office Space” immediately earned a place in the larger zeitgeist on the basis of sheer relatability.