This year marks the 136th anniversary of the first Labor Day.
The beloved tradition is, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, “a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”
So congratulations, my fellow wage slaves.
It seems Labor Day, the long weekend built on our collective backs, and the many backs that came before, the cultural climax of summer, is upon us again.
If you’re looking to cram the most relaxing possible into your gifted day off, allow me to recommend you screen one of these fine flicks, each one focused on work, that thing you’re most likely trying not to think about on the holiday.
They may, however, make you thankful for your own situation, and just a little less loathe to return to the old grind the next day.
* Note: The obvious choice here is “Office Space” (1999), and though I consider it one of the most infinitely re-watchable cult films of all time, I thought I’d use this platform to praise a few less obvious choices. Still, if you could just go ahead and use the new cover sheets on your TPS reports from now on, that’d be great.
1 ‘Salesman’ (1969)
The only documentary on this list is a true classic of the genre.
Directed by brothers Albert and David Maysles (“Gimme Shelter” and “Grey Gardens”), it’s a time capsule of a feature that follows four desperate, relentless door-to-door salesmen as they deal with rejection, homesickness and inevitable burnout as they go across the country selling pricey bibles to low-income Catholic families in the midst of harsh times.
The brothers are especially revered for their work in the so-called Direct Cinema style, first developed by Jean Rouch in France. It’s similar in many respects to cinéma vérité, characterized by filmmakers’ desire to directly capture reality and represent it truthfully by using lightweight cameras and minimal lighting tools in an attempt to show how things really look outside the studio.
2 ‘Clerks’ (1994)
“This job would be great if it wasn’t for the [expletive] customers.”
The film that announced the wise-cracking wordsmith that is Kevin Smith to the world, “Clerks” is a staple of American indie cinema and righteously worthy of a re-watch any time you can spare the time.
The grainy black-and-white comedy depicts a day in the lives of two New Jersey store clerks, slacker buddies Dante and Randal, as they annoy customers, discuss movies and women, worry about and simultaneously avoid discussing the future — and play hockey on the store roof.
The movie reportedly cost $27,575 to make, which Smith acquired by selling a large portion of his extensive comic book collection, maxing out several credit cards, dipping heavily into his college savings, and spending the insurance money he’d been awarded for a car he and Jason Mewes (the foul-mouthed chatterbox Jay, partner in crime with Smith’s Silent Bob character) lost in a flood.
3 ‘Mr. Mom’ (1983)
A movie as much about a sudden lack of work — and what that can do a certain kind of man’s psyche — as it is about the pressures of work, this ’83 comedy (written by pop culture prophet John Hughes) has its detractors (at least a few critics claimed the ending was misogynistic), but remains worthwhile if for no other reason than being a wonderful snapshot of pre-superstar Michael Keaton at his manic best.
The film follows an unemployed Detroit engineer forced to become a stay-at-home dad and take care of three young children after losing his job due to the recession. His wife lands a job first and returns to her previous career in the advertising business.
Obviously, he finds his new domestic responsibilities much more difficult than he imagined. Hilarity, hijinks — and a bit pf personal growth (sort of; it was the ‘80s) ensue.
Admittedly the gender roles are more than a bit dated here, but I believe that was the point of the movie. And, though the end fails to make up for some of the tonal missteps along the way, it’s a fun trip and a fascinating entertainment relic.
4 ‘Sunshine Cleaning’ (2008)
Said The Times: “Given the subject matter and the sheer volume of putrefying human remains, it’s remarkable that the movie still bobs along on a seemingly unquenchable current of sentimental optimism.”
Decaying corpses there are aplenty — and some not-so-rotten heart — in this comedy-drama directed by Christine Jeffs and starring Amy Adams and Emily Blunt.
To raise the tuition to send her troubled young son to private school, a thirty-something single mother starts an unusual business — a biohazard removal/crime scene clean-up service — with her unreliable sister.
It’s a quirky little number about the seeming impossibility of manifest destiny for us by-the-hour types. Sometimes, it seems you can only better your situation over somebody else’s dead body.
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the film three out of four stars, despite some admittedly trite beats.
“This funny and touching movie depends on two can-do actresses to scrub past the biohazard of noxious clichés that threaten to intrude. Adams and Blunt get the job done. They come highly recommended.”
Also, keep an eye out for great supporting turns by Steve Zahn and Alan Arkin.
5 ‘Employee of the Month’ (2004)
No, not that atrocious Dane Cook crapfest from 2006.
This movie is different, much better. It’s weird.
A desperate, deranged man at the end of his rope (Matt Dillon) returns to the bank where he was fired from — after being dumped by his fiancée and having his car stolen by sex worker (Jenna Fischer, before she was Pam) — intent on a confrontation with his boss.
Instead, he walks into a bank robbery in progress and uses the pistol he’s packing for good.
That’s not the whole story, and almost nothing is what it seems in this bizarre and unfairly unknown (decidedly) dark comedy (one of the only notches on actor/writer Mitch Rouse’s director’s belt), but I wouldn’t want to give any more away.
Just check it out, and remember that everybody has those days. It could always be worse.
The movie also features a top-notch supporting role by Steve Zahn, coincidentally, and Christina Applegate and Dave Foley.
Jay Leggett appears as an uber creepy mortician named Dorff who likes to take bets on which terminal patient in the hospital where he works is going to die next. Class act!