Inappropriately marketed as a comedy, Clockwatchers is actually a sad, almost disturbing slice-of-life concerning the empty lives of four office temps and the realistic and/or idealized ways they seek to escape their individual predicaments. This low-key, purposefully bland drama, with spare touches of humor from Margaret (Parker Posey), is steeped in realism, making it all the sadder.
Margaret, Paula, and Jane befriend Iris, the central character, at her new temp job. Margaret is loud-mouthed, foul-mouthed, and smart. Paula (Lisa Kudrow) is a young woman with fast-fading beauty, loose morals, and no hope for a future. Jane (Alanna Ubach) is biding her time waiting for her man to marry her and take her away from the temp world. And Iris (Toni Collette) is intelligent but timid. Unlike her new friends, she has the opportunity to score a real job at an interview that her father has lined up for her; however, low self-esteem, shyness, and a new-found friendship with the office girls contribute to her procrastination. Outward, upward mobility seems to scare her.
One day Iris stares blankly at her empty diary. Her temp job affects her so badly that she can find nothing to write about; she's been turned into a mindless zombie. During a moment of introspection, she thinks, `Sometimes it hits you, how quickly the present fades into the past. And you question everything around you. You wonder if anything you'd ever do would matter, or if you could just disappear without a trace.' Jill and Karen Sprecher's script is punctuated with perceptive, thought provoking lines, many of which comment on the individual's insignificance in society. Early in the film, Margaret comments on how `a person can just drift through life like they're not connected to anyone or anything.' Later, Iris admits that `even if a person wanted to break free, they could find out they've got nowhere else to go.'
Ultimately, the Sprechers' four-character quasi-study can be applied to everyone, every day. Some characters move on, thus positively changing their lives forever; others, whether out of preference, procrastination, or lack of education, stay put, forever locked in dead-end jobs. At the film's end, Iris realizes that improving her situation can come only from `never hiding, never sitting silently, and never just waiting -- and waiting -- and watching the world go by.' Clockwatchers may be a `small' film with a soft voice, but at least it has something to say.