From 'Network' to 'Horrible Bosses,' the Idiots in the Corner Office Endure

Meathead-management movies tap into workplace anxieties of the moment as well as eternal cubicle-drone angst

officespace bill lumbergh 600.jpg
20th Century Fox

Incompetent authority figures appear to be having a moment at the multiplex. In just the past few weeks, we have seen the release of Bad Teacher, in which Cameron Diaz plays exactly that, and Larry Crowne, in which co-writer/director Tom Hanks also stars as the title character, suddenly and unjustly downsized by a fictional big-box retailer for his lack of a college degree. Another bluntly titled studio film, Horrible Bosses, arrives in theaters today. In the ensemble comedy, three men undertake a plot to snuff out their obnoxious and abusive superiors.

Not unlike a few recent films that touch on layoff anxiety, these movies seem designed to emit a zeitgeisty charge—dramatizing ruthlessness in the workplace as Americans increasingly must work more for less, and promising audiences a dose of anti-management catharsis. But that's not to say that difficult and deficient cinematic superiors are a new phenomenon. They have been slamming the doors of their corner offices—and needlessly upbraiding their honest, hardworking employees—for decades.

Many print- and broadcast-journalism films, from classic newspaper noirs to Sidney Lumet's indelible Network to Ron Howard's The Paper, feature notably merciless—and occasionally outright diabolical (see Scandal Sheet)—higher-ups, often with an eye too closely trained on the bottom line at the cost of quality content. Protagonists find themselves under the thumbs of heartless or unreasonably demanding superiors in notable contemporary fare like Glengarry Glen Ross, Office Space, and The Devil Wears Prada—the latter of which delivers the now quaint boom-times message that enduring the caprices of a spiteful VIP ultimately pays off with a golden-ticket letter of recommendation.

Other recent bad-boss flicks include several international critics' favorites: the acid British film In the Loop, a mockumentary-style comedy that detailed the official chicanery in the run-up to the Iraq war; James Cameron's Avatar, with Giovanni Ribisi personifying corporate evil in some of the film's liveliest scenes; the Romanian slow procedural Police, Adjective, whose concluding scene (one of the finest extended instances of on-screen seniority-flaunting) features an extravagantly didactic police supervisor; and the neo-Western Meek's Cutoff, still slowly making its way through domestic art houses. In that film, a shifty, mangy guide leads a group of Western settlers astray, and the families who hired him speculate about whether he's ushering them into a trap or is merely inept. All of the films listed above are caustically distrustful of the powers that be, and several of them (at least the Anglophone ones) might be perceived as not-so-subtle critiques of the rapaciousness of the Bush administration.

Rather than simply a reflection of a national work-life unease, the odious-person-in-charge might best be thought of as an all-weather, big-screen trope akin to the alien invasion: potent and portable. The 1950s saw any number of alien-colonization films that doubled as cautionary Cold War tales; Steven Spielberg's 2005 War of the Worlds remake was shot through with an anxiety about acts of terror on American soil; and this spring's Battle: Los Angeles at times played like a tribute to the U.S. troops currently overseas. The figure of the malign manager is similarly adaptable to the times, whatever their prevailing uncertainties: Managerial avarice or incompetence makes a succinct (if not always entirely apt) top-down explanation for whatever woes the country's enduring. In other words, the horrible bosses were promoted ages ago, and they'll be with us a while yet.