In the 1990s beautiful women terrorized us all: “The Temp”

August 28, 2013


So, the first installment of “Back to the ‘90s” feature (for no reason other than I had it in my iTunes rental queue) is 1993’s The Temp. If forced to come up with a reason for the significance of this film—and, um, by definition I pretty much have to—I would point to the presence of Lara Flynn Boyle. After all, this film was meant to be somewhat of a vehicle for the up-and-comer (it wasn’t), and despite it, she up and came. The 1990s were very much her decade. She was introduced to audiences in 1990’s TV series Twin Peaks, and by 2001 she was headlining in a Will Smith vehicle. Along the way, she taught American women they should want to be skinnier than is humanly possible or remotely sane. So, yeah, the ‘90s were good to ol’ LFB. And kicking it off was this…uh…well, this.

The first thing we can glean about the ‘90s from The Temp is that in 1993 people were terrified of two things: 1) women, and 2) losing their jobs. Seems reasonable enough. We were only six years out from Fatal Attraction and still well aware of the fact that ambitious women were all fucking crazy and must be killed before they totally fuck up our idyllic family lives. We were also emerging from a pretty serious recession, so there’s the psychology for you.

The Temp gives us, like, the eight-millionth take on Fatal Attraction, only this time the stakes couldn’t possibly be lower. In this film Timothy Hutton plays Peter Derns, a middle manager at a cookie company. Go ahead, read that again, it won’t change. Cookie company. Oregon-based cookie company. Well hell, I’m enthralled. As the company grapples with a restructuring necessitated by being purchased by a New York conglomerate, Peter tries to navigate the treacherous shoals of his workplace (hee hee hee…at the cookie company), and bring his product to market—an oatmeal cookie (hee hee hee) that will shore up the company’s falling shares. Yeah, you can practically hear the music from The Insider playing in the background.

Our protagonist isn't exactly Russel Crowe, either.

Our protagonist isn’t exactly Russel Crowe, either.

When his secretary—excuse me, personal assistant (the movie invokes this phrase like it’s a line from the Necronomicon)—takes personal time after his wife gives birth, Peter is saddled with temp Kris Bolin (Boyle). Kris promptly steamrolls everything in Peter’s path and gives him a much-needed leg-up with the company’s boss (played with eye-bugging batshittery by Faye Dunaway), and helps him outflank a weasely competitor played by Oliver Platt (who, strangely enough, seems like the only person in this movie that might actually work at a cookie company and take it seriously).

Soon enough, she has secured her own position at the company (after Peter’s Personal Assistant apparently mistakes his copy of The Darwin Awards for Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and sticks his hand in a shredder to try and clear a paper jam). And things start getting real (or as real as they can get for a cookie company). Executives start dying off in mysterious ways, propelling Peter and Kris up the ladder. In the meantime, Peter’s attempts to reconcile with his wife (Maura Tierney—a genuine ‘90s gem) are thwarted by a series of mishaps that seem to have been engineered by Kris.

Just look at her! She has "crazyvakes" written all over her!

Just look at her! She has “crazycakes” written all over her!

Could Kris be a total psychopath, a modern-day femme fatale, who uses her sexuality and murder to eliminate anyone who stands in her way? Or could it be that Peter’s overdeveloped persecution complex (something he’s in therapy for) causing him to totally misinterpret the situation and miss the actual villain right under Peter’s nose? No, it’s the first one: crazy bitch wants to steal Peter’s job.

Yeah, this is an awful movie. It’s totally devoid of any suspense, and everything is telegraphed a good two or three scenes in advance. The ‘90s were rife with these kind of thrillers—movies in which the seemingly safe and ordinary lives of the main characters are invaded by sociopathic outsiders who worm their way into their daily lives and tear them asunder. Again, Fatal Attraction started this trend, but the relative peace and stability of the Clinton-era forced filmmakers to look to the coffeehouses and well-manicured neighborhoods to look for danger. And, of course, since there really wasn’t any, they manufactured some shit.

Like all these ‘90s films, The Temp is filled with cultural signposts of the times:

Signpost #1: Duel of the ‘dos—This movie is all about the battle of the hairstyles, floppy vs. helmet. The men all sport floppy, goofy hair that is supposed to signify male virility, but actually just make them look ineffectual and emasculated. Kris, on the other hand, lacquers her wild mane into a ball of impenetrable, follicular might. She could deflect a Katusha rocket with that hair. It’s a wonder she doesn’t just head-butt Peter to death with that hair like a rampaging rhinoceros.

The combined amount of gel/hairspray in this scene singlehandedly punched that hole in the ozone layer...

The combined amount of gel/hairspray in this scene singlehandedly punched that hole in the ozone layer…

Signpost #2: Sexuality is evil—Kris wields her sexuality like a medieval mace. She openly taunts Peter, sleeps her way to the top, tells ribald stories, and sometimes lets her hair down, openly showing her sexual desireability. All of this is presented as proof of her villainy. When Peter peeps in her bedroom window and catches her masturbating, the film treats it like confirmation that she is one sick chick. Because, yeah, sexually satisfying yourself in the privacy of your own home is perverted, but watching someone do it is perfectly okay. As we learned with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, having sexual urges is wrong, gross, and certainly worth impeachment proceedings.

"She's wearing the least-revealing bikini ever made...stone her!"

“She’s wearing the least-revealing bikini ever made…stone the harlot!”

Signpost #3: Steven Weber—Okay, is there anyone who more epitomizes the 1990s than Steven Weber? Okay, maybe Arsenio Hall, but it’s a close race. Weber is the essential ‘90s man—a weak, ineffectual, boy-man with seemingly no agency of his own. He glib, goofy, unthreatening, insecure, and pure smarm on a stick. He demands attention and affection like a puppy and is about as impossibly to take seriously. Is it any wonder his heyday was during the ‘90s with the TV show Wings and some forgettable TV-movies, and then promptly evaporated after 9/11? Jack Bauer probably took him out behind a warehouse someplace and shot him.

Welcome to the douche-tastic '90s...

Welcome to the douche-tastic ’90s…

Signpost #4: Identity is everything—The clues that lead Peter to mistrust Kris come in the forms of her layers of deceit. She didn’t get an Ivy League degree, lies about having a husband and daughter…what isn’t she capable of? Of course today we’d just assume she was pulling a Don Draper, but in the days pre-Internet people’s inner lives were still a thing of mystery.

Signpost #5: Faye Dunaway—After her long period in the wilderness following Mommy Dearest, she worked hard to make a comeback in the ‘90s. Hollywood didn’t know what to do with her. And they never did figure it out.

She only looks normal. Any send now she's going attack you with a hanger.

She only looks normal. Any second now she’s going attack you with a hanger.

Signpost #6: Women are just evil—Say this about the misogyny evidenced by today’s pop culture: Michael Bay doesn’t even pretend to hold women as equals. I much prefer it over the understood theme of this and so many other movies of the time: any strong woman who exist in a man’s world must be crazy, damaged or both.  They are dangerously unstable and will threaten the good, wholesomeness of the men they come into contact with. Of course today, the good guys are bad and the women around them, either serve as a moral compass to keep them from being too sympathetic or have equal iron to match them in their descent. Not that this isn’t problematic, of course…

Who would want to work in the same office with THIS?

Who would want to work in the same office with THIS?

Signpost #7: Low stakes–I know I already mentioned this, but it’s worth it returning to this point. Now, there’s nothing in the script of The Temp that indicates we should at all be concerned about the fate of a cookie company. They’re small potatoes, and that’s that. What makes this attitude refreshing is how it is totally unlike any movie released recently. In 1993, a modestly-scaled, modestly-budgeted movie could still be released in theaters and be a profitable venture even before it went to video (that’s the thing all your hipster friends are watching instead of blu-rays). Today, costs of movie productions have skyrocketed, so that every theatrical release had to knock it out of the park in order to be worthwhile venture. And you know what kind of a story absolutely does not knock it out of the park? A low-stakes thriller set in a cookie company.  Nope, today the whole world must be at stake.  Why do you think Khan crashed that honkin’ big starship into San Fransico at the end of Star Trek Into Darkness or most of Metropolis was destroyed in Man of Steel? There’s no room for base hits anymore.

So, there we have The Temp. Next up, we go back to the future with Johnny Mnemonic. Maybe. Whatever.

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