In the film world there are workplace comedies and there’s 9 to 5. Written in 1980 by Patricia Resnick and directed by Colin Higgins, 9 to 5 is a film that gets everything right: the laughs are smart, the cast is perfect, and hey, that song, right?
One of my parents picked this out at a video store’s liquidation sale in the late eighties and I fondly remember watching it on our beta for probably a straight year with my brother and best friend where we delighted in memorizing Violet Newstead’s lines and reciting them to each other in everyday moments of life (“Thanks, Ros, I know just where to stick it”). We may or may not still do this. In fact, I may or may not be able to recite the entire film from start to finish.
In any event, this is a throwback with some serious staying power. The story begins with Judy Bernly (Jane Fonda) arriving for her first day at a busy corporate office; Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin) is the supervisor charged with training her. Violet is a twelve-year company veteran, Judy, a recently-divorced housewife, but they easily connect over the work, which employees are gossips, and the truth about their boss, Franklin Hart (Dabney Coleman), a semi-competent vice president but disgusting human being.
When he’s not taking credit for Violet’s ideas or explaining the greater points of men’s superiority in areas of teamwork or dealing with numbers, Hart is setting up disgusting schemes to sexually harass his secretary, Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton), who is shunned by the rest of the office. When Hart finally crosses the line with each woman--giving away Violet’s promotion, admitting he’s been spreading rumors about Doralee, and firing one of Judy’s friends--the three get together and bond over fantasies of serving Hart some payback and taking him out.
When Violet mistakenly seasons Hart’s coffee with rat poison (the same method she’d used in the fantasy the night before) and he’s taken to the hospital, the women eventually find out just how far they’re willing to go to defend each other and how maybe, they might be able to do Hart’s job better without him. Throughout all the action, some of it serious like gunfire and car chases, the comedy takes a few different forms. Tomlin as Violet is full of wit and one-liners; her exchanges with office employees range from sarcastic to all-out snappy, but she’s also not above making sentimental comments about cartoons or singing the praises of her son’s marijuana.
There are nice bits of physical comedy that usually focus on Hart tripping or flinging objects around or the entirety of each woman’s “kill fantasy” as imaginary Hart tries to wiggle his way out of justice (Doralee’s hog-tie comes immediately to mind, which she performs brilliantly), and Judy gets some pretty major mileage out of the sexist egotistical lying hypocritical bigot reference, but underscoring all this funny business is the persistent idea that Hart is offensive and vile.
The message is that he’s getting his comeuppance, but he’s too much of a jerk to even see it. Late in the film, when the unrepentant Hart realizes he’s been outsmarted he asks, “Don’t you think I might be missed at the office?” Our ladies don’t answer, but they don’t really need to, do they?
By Anna Purrington