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SXSW 2022: Still Working 9 to 5 has too much on its agenda

Still Workign 9 to 5

A successful behind the scenes look at the classic workplace comedy falls short as a sober documentary about the modern feminist movement

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 South by Southwest Festival)

It’s hard to criticize a documentary that so clearly is well-meaning in its goal. That’s particularly true when the primary issue is that it’s simply trying to do too much, losing its focus along the way. Gary Lane and Camille Hardman’s Still Working 9 to 5 starts off as a pleasant, zippy look at the making and cultural impact of the 1980 smash comedy 9 to 5, but then veers off into a message film about the feminist movement that is somehow both overly serious, and shallow at the same time. 

If you were to watch 9 to 5 today (and you should, it’s a genuinely witty movie that only shows its age in the giant Xerox machines and Jane Fonda’s prim pussy bow blouses), it would be difficult to believe that it was once considered an outlier, and a potentially controversial risk for its studio. A workplace comedy that served up the truth about office inequality and feminism in a way that would make it palatable to mainstream (read: male) audiences, it was released at a time when half of American women who held down full-time jobs did those jobs in the office sector. Despite that, clerical work was ignored, if not outright looked down on as mindless drudgery that required little more than the ability to press a button or hit a few keys, or worse, acting as the boss’s surrogate wife. Everything you need to know about the general attitude towards that kind of employment can be summed up in a clip of Fonda promoting 9 to 5, and using the phrase “personal secretary,” which the panel interviewing her reacts to with derisive chuckles, as if to say “Yeah, we know what that means.”

Despite tepid reviews by (mostly male) critics, 9 to 5 became an unexpected massive hit, bested only by The Empire Strikes Back as the biggest movie of 1980. While Fonda was already a known quantity, the film introduced actual living angel Dolly Parton to non-country music audiences (and gave her a pop chart smash in the theme song), established Lily Tomlin as a terrific screwball comedy actress, and secured Dabney Coleman, playing odious middle management boss Franklin Hart, as one of 80s cinema’s greatest pricks. When Still Working 9 to 5 focuses on the making of 9 to 5, it’s a lot of fun, chock full of bits of interesting trivia, like the fact that there were originally five leads instead of three, and that Steve Martin and Richard Dreyfuss were both considered to play their nemesis Hart.

Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton & Jane Fonda in 9 to 5 (20th Century Fox)

Though it seems a curious choice to attribute most of what made the film work to director Colin Higgins, it’s obvious that the real secret sauce was the three leads, after Fonda personally selected Tomlin and Parton, making her feature film debut, as her co-stars. There’s no behind the scenes dirt about egos clashing to be found here–the actors became fast friends on set, and it shows in their genuine warm chemistry on screen. Talking head interviews are shored up with a bounty of clips from the movie, outtakes, blooper reels, and deleted scenes. Some time is even spent on the failed sitcom inspired by it, and a slightly more successful Broadway musical, unfortunately produced by Harvey Weinstein.

A clip of Weinstein at the premiere of the musical wryly noting that his employees could probably relate to working for an overbearing, sexual harassing monster of a boss is when Still Working 9 to 5 pivots from a lighthearted tribute to a sober look at the continuing struggle to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, as well as the #metoo movement. It’s not that these topics can’t be tied into the cultural effect of 9 to 5, it’s that they’re handled too clumsily to have any real impact. It’s not a particularly insightful thing to look at a movie like 9 to 5 and think “Gee, things haven’t really changed much at all,” so the documentary using an additional 45 minutes to focus on how much it hasn’t changed feels superfluous. When a ticker shows how many times the hashtag #metoo was used on social media between 2017 and 2020, without elaborating on how it was used, it’s an overly simplified way of interpreting data, omitting that the term was eventually twisted into a tool to harass and discredit.  

The fact that in 2016 more white women turned out to vote for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton suggests that among the chief things holding the modern feminist movement back are other women. Yet, Still Working 9 to 5 overlooks this as well, suggesting that women have uniformly banded together to campaign for equality and push back against the male dominated workplace. This is particularly odd considering one of the secret villains of 9 to 5 is Roz, Franklin Hart’s obsequious female assistant/toady, who spies on the other employees and reports any hint of interoffice rebellion. That bit of ugly truth could have easily been tied back to the movie that’s being reflected on, and it bafflingly isn’t.

Though Kelly Clarkson’s slowed down, dreary cover of 9 to 5’s hit theme song is in keeping with the serious turn the movie takes, Still Working 9 to 5 ends on a high note, with the election of Kamala Harris as Vice-President. Well, one assumes that it’s meant to be a high note, as if to suggest that, finally, a new day is dawning for women everywhere. Now, to be fair, Lane and Hardman could not have foreseen that by the time their film saw release things would look bleaker than ever for women on multiple levels, but again, it’s a surface approach to a complicated, far-reaching issue that will take more than spunk and a fighting spirit to address.

Still Working 9 to 5 Trailer:

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Gena Radcliffe

Gena Radcliffe is the co-host of the award-winning (not really) horror podcast Kill by Kill, and has also written for F This Movie, Anatomy of a Scream, and Grim magazine (although the Spool is her pride and joy). Her pitch graveyard and "pieces that don't really belong anywhere else" can be found at genaradcliffe.com, and you can see her slowly losing her mind at Twitter under @porcelain72.

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