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Work as Portrayed in Film


Filmmakers have long used the workplace as a rich setting for both drama and humor. After all, most of us play out a significant part of our lives at work. “Work films,” therefore, offer a rich tapestry of how people have viewed work over time. Consider this passage from History Matters:

Increasingly historians have moved away from a history that chronicles battles, treaties, and presidential elections to one that tries to provide an image of the way daily life unfolded for the mass of people: how they worked, what they did for fun, how families were formed or fell apart, or how the fabric of daily life was formed or transformed. Film has an important role to play in these histories. While traditional historical documents tend to privilege great events and political leaders, historians now use other records to discern the lives of "ordinary" people: census records, accounts of harvests and markets, diaries and memoirs, and local newspapers. Film is perhaps more like these records of daily life than it is like the documents that record great events. Motion pictures may provide the best evidence of what it was like to walk down the streets of Paris in the 1890s, what a Japanese tea ceremony was like in the 1940s, what the World Series in 1950 looked like, or how people in factories did their work or spent a Sunday afternoon in the park.”

Film offers a vibrant interpretation of ordinary activities, work included. Each of the movies below speaks to some aspect of work and its place in our lives. Some of it is funny, some of it not so much. But, again, all the films offer us a chance to explore the role work and our jobs play in our lives … and a little entertainment on the side.

Have another movie to suggest?
Let us know what you’d like to see … we’d like to include the movies that speak to you.

Now Playing at Work in the Movies

 
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  • Words and PicturesStarring: Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche
    How far will you go to resume your job?
  • Mozart in the JungleStarring: Lola Kirke, Saffron Burrows, Hannah Dunne, Gael Garcia Bernal, Bernadette Peters, Malcolm McDowell
    Change vs. inertia in the workplace?
  • ChefStarring: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johannson, Oliver Platt, Bobby Carnivale
    You can’t fire me, I quit … and I’m trending.
  • Office SpaceStarring: Ron Livingston, Jennifer Anniston, Gary Cole, David Herman, Ajay Naidu
    I don’t like my job and I’m not going back.
  • Norma RaeStarring: Sally Field, Beau Bridges, Ron Leibman
    Unionizing in the South in the 1970s
  • The Smartest Guys in the RoomDirected by: Alex Gibney
    Corporate culture run amok.
  • The GraduateStarring: Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Katherine Ross
    What to do after graduation?
  • Horrible BossesStarring: Justin Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Anniston, Colin Farrell, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx
    No wonder so many people don’t want to go to work
  • Show More



The Movies


 
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“You were a published author?”

“I’m still a published author. It doesn’t go away like the mumps.”
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Words and Pictures
2013

Directed by: Fred Schepisi
Written by: Gerald Di Pego
Starring: Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche
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Lack of motivation, conflict with your colleagues, drinking at lunch in the parking lot, department mates scheming to take your job, stealing someone else’s work to save your job … this one’s got more than enough work issues for anyone. And, they’re all wrapped up in an enjoyable and beguiling little movie.

Clive Owen (Marcus) and Juliette Binoche (Delsandro) headline this story of two prep school teachers struggling to find meaning in their lives through their work. Marcus is an acclaimed poet and English teacher, clinging to the belief that life is best understood through words. Delsandro arrives at the school, a noted artist whose skill has been sapped by rheumatoid arthritis. To her, pictures tell all. Played out against this backdrop of words vs. pictures, both individuals struggle to put their professional and personal lives back in harmony.

If you, like me, have spent a good amount of time in front of a classroom, you may find this movie particularly enchanting. It’s difficult for the “uninitiated” to understand how hard it is to stay motivated when each day, you present to a group of seemingly unmotivated customers (shall we say ‘students?’). Weighed down by his flagging ability to write and the rising disinterest of his students, Marcus contends with rising conflict with his coworkers and the school’s . He finds his job in jeopardy, but finds solace in a liquor-laced thermos enjoyed each luthier while sitting in his car in the parking lot. Motivation flagging, threatened with dismissal, Marcus is rejuvenated, it seems, sparked by the challenge of Delsandro, a newly-arrived and talented coworker. While his drinking worsens, and he fails an ethical quandary in an attempt to save his job, one wonders if he himself can be saved. In the end, maybe it’s the workplace that provides the rudder for the course of his life, along with the steady hand of a friend at work.

I thought this a good movie. It ended a bit abruptly, almost as if the director thought, “Well, enough of that.” Still, it is well worth a watch. And, if you like to see work issues play out in front of you, this one has them in spades.
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“All I spend my time doing, is like, figuring out how to make money … and none of it is about the art.”
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Mozart in the Jungle
2014

Creators: Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Alex Timbers
Starring: Lola Kirke, Saffron Burrows, Hannah Dunne, Gael Garcia Bernal, Bernadette Peters, Malcolm McDowell
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This is a hard one to categorize and maintain a focus on work/organizational tie-ins. This Amazon series revolves around a newly-minted maestro of the mythical New York Symphony and a budding oboist who can’t make the grade yet as an oboist with the Symphony, but has caught the attention of the new maestro. Worthy of its critical acclaim as a TV series, it is a cornucopia of work/life issues.

Take your pick: transition of power from one leader to another, boundary spanners and the need to satisfy external stakeholders, change management, organizational culture … you name it and it’s in here.

On the work front, we see Hailey struggle to balance the need to find work with her life as a struggling musician in New York. (Spoiler alert) After missing an audition and then botching an invitation to perform with the Symphony, she becomes a mentee of the new maestro, and faces false accusations about her path to the job. Along the way, we get to see an HR representative buying drugs from the percussionist, symphony members invoking work rules for “pee breaks” during practices, union reps arguing about tactics for the upcoming negotiation, informal groups forming within the overall structure of the symphony, overt sexual harassment … again, you name it and its in here.

This series is available via Amazon streaming. It’s nice to see a workplace like a symphony presented in a series, the acting is top notch, and the writing is light and insightful. Sign up for Amazon Prime and binge watch this now …your loss if you don’t check Mozart in the Jungle out.
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“You’re trending, bro!”
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Chef
2014

Directed and Written By: John Favreau
Starring: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johannson, Oliver Platt, Bobby Carnivale
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You can’t fire me … I quit!

The classic scenario, but in this case it plays out in a restaurant owned by Dustin Hoffman. Jon Favreau is a once-acclaimed chef, toiling in a restaurant that costs a pedestrian, yet successful menu. We find FAvreau excited to prepare a special menu one night for a famous food critic/blogger, but Hoffman wants the chef to stick to basics. Blasted by the critic for bland food, Favreau accidentally triggers a Twitter war with the critic, ignites a re-tasting by the critic, but once again is ordered by Hoffman to turn out the basics for the crowd. His creativity stifled, his reputation in tatters, Favreau quits the restaurant in a huff, gets blasted again in social media, and … well, finds himself on the rescuing end of Robert Downey, Jr.s pity. Pity in the form of a beat-up, grease laden, rusted out food truck. And the rest, as they say, is history.

A feel-good movie with an amazing cast, this is a good flick for a laid-back weekend. From a work standpoint, we could start with the tension creative types feel when the work environment stifles their creativity. Lacking a way to innovate, organizations very often let their “innovators” walk out the door.

Maybe we could focus on the way social media has transformed the service and hospitality industries. Favreau’s attempts to embrace twitter are comical, and dangerous from a business standpoint (see the clip “that lives forever”).

Or, perhaps we could focus on the teamwork aspect of the film. Favreau’s new experience with the truck comes during a trip with his ex-wife (Vergara) and their son to Miami. His son pitches in to help “revive” the truck, but we see the inevitable “Storming” arise as this two-man team tries to get to productivity. They’re bailed out when Leguizamo, his old line chef, arrives, lending his skill set along with his organizational skills to round out the team.

There are a host of workplace issues wrapped in this “get back in touch with my family” film. But in the end, it’s a good time … great food, good dialogue, a memorable rant by Favreau, a great cast, Gary Clark Jr. in Austin, even more on the soundtrack … go rent it, forget about work and enjoy the movie.
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“I don’t like my job, and I don’t think I’m gonna go anymore.”
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Office Space
1999

Directed and written by: Mike Judge
Starring: Ron Livingston, Jennifer Anniston, Gary Cole, David Herman, Ajay Naidu
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“Uhmmhh … I’m going to need you to go ahead and come in tomorrow.” Whether it’s the time that the printer wouldn’t work, your boss springs a weekend assignment on you on Friday afternoon, or the “consultants” brought in to tell you how to do your job better, there is something for everyone to say … yeah, that’s just like it is at my place of work. A great send-up of the workplace and the things that drive us nuts at work, sometimes to the point of “I don’t think I’m gonna go any more.” Very highly rated by both Rotten Tomatoes (more than 90% of audiences liked it) and IMDb, you’ll see your self or someone else you know in this portrayal of the dysfunctional workplace.
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“Norma, you got the biggest mouth in this mill. Give us a longer break … give us more smoking’ time.”

“Do it and I’ll shut up!”

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Norma Rae
1979

Directed by: Martin Ritt
Written by: Harriet Frank, Jr.
Starring: Sally Field, Beau Bridges, Ron Leibman
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Sally Field won an Oscar for her portrayal of a textile worker in a Southern factory. Balanced against her personal life, this drama offers an interesting take on the unionization movement and the efforts some firms made to resist collectivization.

Although decidedly pro-union, the movie does remind us of a more active era of union organizing. As union density has declined in recent years, our familiarity of the role of collective strength in bargaining and workplace management has dimmed. Norma Rae offers a harsh glimpse of the way work can be considered a commodity ... and the price workers pay when too distant from the organization. Very highly rated by both Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb.
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“Skilling wanted to set free the basic instincts of survival of the fittest.”
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The Smartest Guys in the Room
2005

Directed by: Alex Gibney
Written by: Peter Elkind, Bethany McLean, Alex Gibney
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The story of Enron is the quintessential corporate “riches to rags” story. Once recognized as the most successful business in the United States, Enron crashed into bankruptcy in a blaze of corruption, mis-management, and unethical behavior.

Housed within this story is a great example of a strong organizational culture run amok. In particular, we see a work climate that fostered over-the-top competition among employees along with a performance system that rewarded behaviors that mimicked the company’s CEO, Jeffrey Skilling. Organizational cultures comprise the shared beliefs, understandings, and expectations among members of an organization. Strong organizational cultures exact penalties from members that do not act in accordance with those expectations. In the clip shown here, we see a description of Skilling and Chairman Ken Lay’s “rank and yank” system that eliminates 15% of the workers that didn’t reflect their ideals. These ideals paraphrased by a worker in the clip, who said that if he was going in to argue for a raise, and they told him he could double his raise by stepping on someone’s throat, he’d “stomp” on that guy’s throat.

This is a riveting documentary about a workplace gone rogue. If you ever wanted to see a work environment run amok, this is it. Must see for anyone interested in a dysfunctional workplace.1 Read more and see the actual trailer at Rotten Tomatoes or IMDb.
  1. Dysfunctional workplace behavior defined by Giacalone & Greenberg as “any behavior that brings harm, or is intended to bring harm, to an organization. its employees or stakeholders”.

    See Giacalone, R.a. and Greenberg, J. (1997), Antisocial Behavior in Organizations, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks CA, p. vii
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“What are you going to do now …”

“I was going to go upstairs for a minute.”

“I mean with your future.”

“Your life.”

“Well, that’s a little hard to say.”
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The Graduate
1967

Directed by: Mike Nichols
Starring: Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Katherine Ross
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The recent passing of Mike Nichols reminds us of one of his most influential directorial achievements; the iconic film The Graduate. Just graduated, need a job … anyone else been there? In the 1960s, we find Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) fresh out of school and fresh out of ideas for a career. An innocent at large, he “finds” himself lured into his neighbor’s house, seduced by his father’s law partner’s wife (Mrs. Robinson), and trapped between that relationship and then falls in love with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter. And, that has nothing to do with work.

The movie did, however, spawn a classic bit of career advice. In the middle of the tangled relationship, Benjamin finds himself at a cocktail party. He admits to not having a clear vision of his future, but is offered some sage advice … just one word … are you listening? Plastics (see the video at left). While not the stuff of Horace Greeley and going west, it does remind us that sometimes the best career advice lies in the choice of industry, not the job.

If you’ve not seen this movie, you should do so now … a true classic and illustrative of the changing cultural norms from the 60s to the 70s.

You can find the original trailer here at IMDb.
  1. Dysfunctional workplace behavior defined by Giacalone & Greenberg as “any behavior that brings harm, or is intended to bring harm, to an organization. its employees or stakeholders”.

    See Giacalone, R.a. and Greenberg, J. (1997), Antisocial Behavior in Organizations, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks CA, p. vii
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“I’ve decided who I want to be our new Vice President of Sales … me.”
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Horrible Bosses
2011

Directed by: Seth Gordaon
Starring: Justin Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Anniston, Colin Farrell, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx
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Stuck with a boss you can’t stand, you know the boss isn’t going anywhere, and given the state of the economy you can’t quit. What’s the solution? Well, in this dark comedy, the solution seems to be to hire a hit man and eliminate the problem, err boss.

In no way would we condone violence to solve a workplace problem. But, in the spirit of fiction and comedy, this movie works most of the time. As with all comedies, sometimes the jokes just don’t work. It might be a bit raunchy for some tastes, and the target of the dark humor is often the height of insensitivity (“I want you to fire the fat people”).

Beyond the comedic element, the movie is a walking course in Organizational Behavior. Sexual harassment plays out in the form of Dr. Julia Harris (Jennifer Anniston) creating about as hostile of a sexual environment as you will find at work. Interesting touch, too, to have the female superior harassing the male subordinate. Kevin Spacey’s Machiavellian character (Dave Harken) offers some great examples of the use of coercive power when dealing with Jason Bateman (Nick Hendricks): “Listen to me, you stupid little runt. I OWN YOU. You're my BITCH! So don't walk around here thinking you have free will because you DON'T. I can break you anytime I want!" He does balance it out with a bit of reward power: “You want a promotion? You gotta earn it.” Maybe you’ve tried dealing with the incompetent son of the owner of a family business (Colin Farrell as Bobby Pellet):
Pellitt: You’re three hours late.
Beckman: I was at your father’s funeral!
Pellet: Uh huh. Well, maybe that excuse would have flown when my Dad was here, but I’m in charge now.

Often funny, always dark, sometimes harsh and mean, this movie will likely touch a chord in all of us, as we have all been there … stuck with a supervisor that sucks. Watch the movie, relate to it, and pick up a few lessons about how supervision in the workplace should not work.

You can find reviews and the trailer at IMDb or Rotten Tomatoes.
  1. Dysfunctional workplace behavior defined by Giacalone & Greenberg as “any behavior that brings harm, or is intended to bring harm, to an organization. its employees or stakeholders”.

    See Giacalone, R.a. and Greenberg, J. (1997), Antisocial Behavior in Organizations, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks CA, p. vii
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