Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Nine to Five" (1980)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

Nine to Five, the feminist revenge comedy starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton, has the unfair reputation of being remembered mostly for Parton's title song. This isn't meant to be a knock on either. Parton's song is as catchy as any of her greatest work, landing her the first of her two Best Original Song Oscar nominations, and the lyrics - loaded with blue-collar weariness, her specialty - are presciently critical of the "greed is good" Reaganomics that would dominate the decade. By all measures, its a terrific tune, a pop song that will rightfully lodge itself in your head long after the movie is over.

Yet the film is so much more than its catchy opening ditty. It's earned its reputation as both a kitschy classic and a feminist credo: Violet (Tomlin), Doralee (Parton), and new hire Judy (Fonda) are sick of the way their sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot of a boss, Mr. Hart (Dabney Coleman), treats them at work. He denies Violet a promotion while taking credit for her ideas on efficiency, shamelessly comes on to Doralee (and is quick to ensure the rest of the office believes they are having an affair, despite Doralee's rejections), and does little to help Judy feel more comfortable at work. So, one night after a few drinks and a little reefer, the women fantasize about how they would punish Hart for his behavior. But when it appears that Violet may have accidentally poisoned Hart's coffee, the scenario becomes all-too-real. It gets even worse when Hart turns out to not be dead at all, making revenge even harder to come by.

It's a pretty dark premise to hang a lighthearted comedy on: sexual harassment and misogyny in the workplace countered by (attempted) murder, kidnapping, and other forms of mayhem. None of this is too surprising, given that director Colin Higgins had made his break in the film industry with his screenplay for Hal Ashby's morbidly-droll classic Harold and Maude (sadly, Nine to Five was the second of only three films Higgins directed before succumbing to AIDS in 1988). But lighthearted it is, as best seen in the film's best sequence: the fantasies of killing Hart.

More after the jump.

You can pretty much immediately tell that this film stands in stark contrast to the political atmosphere of the 1980s from the beginning of this sequence, in which the women decide to hang out at Doralee's house and smoke pot (which Violet obtains from her son!). Not that we should expect anything less from a film starring Fonda and Tomlin, two of the most outspoken liberals in Hollywood at the time, yet even today its remarkable to see a film so forthright about marijuana usage that doesn't devolve into a PSA or stoner-comedy silliness (not that there's not silliness to be had here).

As the women cut up and laugh their heads off, Judy mentions that she just had the funniest thought about hunting Hart like a whitetail deer. This kicks off a fantastic run of fantasy sequences, as each women gets her chance to star in a goofy revenge fantasy that not only gives them a chance to shine, but to play to their strengths in ways that heighten the film to greatness.

Judy imagines something out of a Hitchcock movie, a black-and-white thriller in which Hart is being hunted through the building by an angry mob of his employees. He's cornered by Judy in his office, and she lets loose the sort of on-the-nose monologue that one expects from Fonda the Activist. But what makes it so enjoyable - apart from that delicious chiaroscuro - is the way that Fonda plays this version of Judy with a sly wink, a nod to her more famous roles and her offscreen persona. She's tough-as-nails, taking aim at her enemy with a smirk of satisfaction that's at odds with the Judy we've previously gotten to know.

Similarly, Doralee's fantasy is an extension of how audiences recognize Parton: a ball-busting cowgirl who's equal parts feminist icon and country-and-western kitsch. In her fantasy, she turns the tables on Hart, in what is essentially a remake of an earlier scene in which Hart calls Doralee into her office to pen a memo, only to be harassed by his advances. Only this time the roles are reversed: Doralee is now in Hart's position, making lewd advances on him as he rebuffs her at every turn. But, as many great films have shown us, there's powerful truth in the comedy: flipping the script makes it funny, sure, but it also makes a strong point about how ridiculous it is that women should have to face this treatment every day. And of course, it ends with a bit of rodeo-inspired nonsense, as Doralee lassos Hart, hogties him, and roasts him over an open fire.

Finally, there's Violet's fantasy, which may be both the most elaborate and outright insane of them all. She imagines her revenge as something "like a fairy tale;" cue Tomlin in a Snow White-influenced outfit interacting with cartoon animals. As she gracefully swoons between her desk to getting Hart's coffee, she sprinkles poison into his cup, then takes it to him. After taking a sip and having an exaggerating reaction, she opens a window, turns his chair around, and ejects him, sending him flying to the street below. Cue the exaltation:

*Best Shot*

Violet's fantasy is the best encapsulation of the film's sense of humor. First off, it makes great use of Tomlin's wiseass comedic persona, which rivals (and is arguably superior to) her contemporary Bill Murray's self-satisfied schtick. That wry look she wears on her face throughout the scene is fantastically smug, and Tomlin has an absolute blast at twisting Disney Princess innocence. But there's also so many wonderful little details that make it even more amusing, from the sinister giggle accompanying the skull-and-crossbones smoke rising from Hart's mug to the animated rabbit seen knitting at her introduction:

And the final product after Hart's grisly demise:

And as if that wasn't enough, there's the dungeon the office drones are kept prisoner in, a medieval setting complete with modern office accessories:

And there celebrations after their chains have been magically broken, the white light of victory shining brightly through the door:

Everything about this is absolutely absurd, but the film plays it all with a straight-enough face to sell it as hilarious comedy. As the mayhem of the film's second half spirals out of the ladies' control, it maintains its terrific sense of humor, but it never quite matches the highs of these fantasies. Like Parton's songs, the film works best when it's airing the grievances of its blue-collar, female characters and giving them room to play out their progressive dreams.

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