Jon Favreau is an artist of the meltdown. While other filmmakers may focus on stories of redemption or childhoods lost, Favreau tends to dwell on a person’s most soul-crushing and self-destructive moment, occurring in the most humiliating (and humorous) of situations with an onscreen audience present to revel in the misery. Perhaps that is why his newest film, this month’s wonderfully satisfying Chef (which you can read our review of here), works so well as a story of second chances and a midlife renewal that can be as tasty as a Cuban sandwich and as crowd-pleasing as a Robert Downey Jr. scene stealing cameo.
Just as the beauty of a 20-something’s anxiety was put on wondrous display in the memory-searing brutality of Favreau’s multi-voicemail harakiri before a cute girl he just met at the bar in Swingers, and his version of Tony Stark was forced to be humbled in a Taliban-like cave built on Stark’s weapons in Iron Man, the newest Favreau protagonist in Chef Carl Casper also was forced to meet the most thorough and complete of humblings. However, this one was something different. As opposed to being a personal setback as a human being like the other characters, Carl Casper (played by Favreau himself) faces the most abject failings as an artist when he turns himself into a laughing stock before all of social media when he loses his job and reputation simultaneously by confronting mean-spirited food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) before the rest of his restaurant’s patrons. He smashes a chocolate lava cake in his hands, but it might as well have been his career as every iPhone in the room captured his complete degradation as a human being, serving up moist tears with a healthy dose of 21st century shame on the side.
The meltdown is big, it is loud, and it is savage to watch. And it got us thinking: what are some other brutal professional breakdowns? What are the movies’ biggest, most humiliating, and most satisfying moments of schadenfreude on celluloid? What are the seven best workplace breakdowns?
Office Space (1999)
Arguably the quintessential workplace comedy, Office Space is all about a man who is mad as hell, so he’s not going to take it anymore. Instead, he is going to put up his legs, recline in his chair, and relax while everyone around him panics when he gets a promotion for doing nothing. It is a white collar fantasy that is not so much about breaking down as overcoming all obstacles through sheer apathy. Nevertheless, it still features one of the best onscreen workplace exits when the titular spaced out protagonist (Ron Livingston) takes a backseat for his girlfriend to end her daily minutia of food service hell. Played with usual upbeat every woman appeal by Jennifer Aniston, Joanna gets one moment to shine in a very non-Rachel way when she is told for the umpteenth time by her restaurant employer, who is so-not-TGI-Friday’s, that she isn’t expressing herself with enough “flair.”
“This is my flair,” she exclaims with a middle finger that is far more pronounced than any badge of the Sydney Opera House on her suspenders. When you’re told that you need to showcase your inner-thoughts, Joanna stood up for what likely many, many folks who earn their living by tips on waiting for other people really think. Now’s that’s some real razzle-dazzle pizzazz for the next “eating good in the neighborhood” commercial.
American Beauty (1999)
However, another 1999 film gave the white collar audience its complete wish fulfillment when Lester Burnham not only quit his job, but he literally stuck it to the man…at least that is what he’d tell everyone if they didn’t pay him a one-year severance package complete with health benefits.
When American Beauty begins, Kevin Spacey’s Lester has been a lifelong schmuck that doesn’t even have any respect from his own family. Lusting after his teenage daughter’s frenemy while being driven in the backseat to work everyday with his cheating wife, Lester appears one step away from a suicide or transcendence. Luckily, it’s the latter in what Alan Ball clearly romanticizes as the most demonic existence on earth—Suburbia, USA parenthood.
So, when Lester is asked to write a letter that is meant to, in so many words, beg for his own job, he instead cements his exit from the world of advertising in a one-sentence masterpiece: “My job consists of basically masking my contempt for the assholes in charge, and at least once a day retiring to the men’s room, so I can jerk-off while I fantasize about a life that doesn’t so closely resemble hell.” Now, that’s what I’d call an amicable de-coupling!
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Technically a cheat due to its basis in the superb 1984 Pulitzer-winning play of the same name, this Glengarry Glen Ross scene of hotshot Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) tearing into middle management putz John Williamson (Kevin Spacey) is too good to ignore. It’s a moment that is ostensibly about the loss of one property sale for real estate ball-buster Roma after Williamson barges in to tell a mark contradictory information about his sizable check that Roma hustled away from him in a swindle the night before. The problem is that Williamson tells the truth about the check, which is a complete rejection of Roma’s lies, costing them both the sale and Roma the chance to secure his spot as the top salesman in the declining office.
Instead of merely shouting the filthy David Mamet dialogue that involves many allusions between Williamson and a woman’s body, Pacino slowly simmers out the outrage for his would-be boss into a lecture about the difference between “men” and “children.” It is a sequence of primal shaming, such as how an alpha wolf might snap and snarl at the omega of a pack. By reflecting on how the merciless business of real estate conning is not so different from the battles of Neanderthals over food, Mamet juxtaposes the hunters with the sheep that civilization has inadvertently empowered.
Bad Santa (2003)
Basically a whole movie that could count as a workplace metldown, Bad Santa is one of the raunchiest and grossest holiday movies of all time. Bless ‘em. And it has one hilarious scene right after the other of Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie spectacularly failing to live up to the standards and requirements of his chosen profession as a mall Santa Claus. If it wasn’t for the quick-thinking of Tony Cox, the brains of the operation, their blackmailing tag-team would be spending every December in the poor house.
But if one were to pick Willy’s single best failing as Santa Claus, it is when the kids all line up, standing by eagerly awaiting the arrival of St. Nick. But they get something even more holy, because it is truly a miracle that Santa-Willy could be that drunk and still stumble, tumble and fall atop all of the mall’s Christmas decorations before the faces of many screaming kids. It is a moment of total embarrassment for a character who cannot be embarrassed (or remember that he has been) and even surpasses when John Ritter asks him about having the right “gear” to play Santa.
Fight Club (1999)
Probably the most iconic movie moment of someone quitting their job in a bizarre fashion, Edward Norton’s unnamed narrator becomes Jack’s Smirking Revenge when he finally leaves his soul-murdering job as a “fix it” analyst at a big car manufacturer (remember, it’s a very big one) by consciously doing to himself what’s been happening the whole movie: slapping the inanity out of the monotony of autonomous corporate drone culture. In fact, David Fincher’s Fight Club, a staple for any Gen-Xer, is probably the last gasp of counterculture grunge before social media turned branding hegemony into a life necessity. But there is no IKEA for this “Jack” when he quits one self-inflicted punch to the face at a time.
It is the best fight in the movie that tips Fincher’s hand at what is really going on in Edward’s meek ne’er do well character that only feels alive when blood is streaming from his broken nose. But at least this time, it makes a great excuse to blackmail the boss. In retrospect, 1999 appeared to be the year of quitting escapist fantasy.
Based on a running 90-second SNL sketch, MacGruber is funnier than it has any right to be. About a 1980s wind-blown throwback known only as the MacGruber, this is an infinitely dumb and infinitely hilarious movie. And that is rarely more crystallized than in how Will Forte’s titular character handles all workplace situations with complete extremes. After being brought back in by the CIA or Pentagon or whoever to stop his greatest nemesis Von Cunth (Val Kilmer), MacGruber makes sure that everyone knows he is the toughest hombre this side of the border with his unending, cursing condescension. When boy scout Lt. Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe) suggests that he tag along for MacGruber’s early heroic foray into the field, he gets a definite “no” in the form of a well-placed head-butt. MacGruber sure knows how to leave an impression.
So, a few short scenes later, after MacGruber’s initial team and plans go up in smoke, he is forced to re-gather all his dignity and reconvene with Piper to coordinate counterterrorist measures as equals…which involves MacGruber falling to his knees to pleadingly sob, “Just tell me what you want me to fuck.” Not much more needs to be said than that about this exchange.
Still, the unequivocally greatest big screen meltdown during a character’s on-the-clock hours is also one of the best scenes in movie history. And it is also one of the most misunderstood.
When faced with being led out to pasture due to his age, nightly news anchor and walking stiff Howard Beale (Peter Finch) has a vision from God—or at least that stroke that probably disturbed the balance of his neurological chemicals. Either way, he is struck with a passion and a fury to sign off what was intended to be his final broadcast with the words “I’m mad as Hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” It is a crazed scene of fury and anger that engrosses audiences in the theater as much as the ones within the movie’s narrative. Before long everyone is standing from their front porch or fire escape shouting the famous lines too.
However, many people quote the movie with the same absent-minded apathy as the film’s vision of America: hapless denizens worth only being herded to the next commercial break. Beale’s psychotic breakdown is treated as revelatory in the film as it is by political candidates and shock jock pundits who quote it on Fox News to this day.
Beale is rehired for what is almost a prophetic vision on Pulitzer Prize wining screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s part: Beale is the first talking head “opinion” leader masquerading as news. What he says the titular network doesn’t much care about, just so long as it gets people to watch and keeps the ad dollars rolling in. Soon, “I’m as mad as Hell” is as much the empty corporate bumper sticker slogan in the film that it is in real life. And the fact that so few in either reality or art realize this makes it all the more telling.
So, there are seven greatest workplace meltdowns from film. What are some of your favorites?