Tom Holland’s “The Temp” (1993) is a thriller that takes place within a cookie company called Mrs. Appleby’s, which is famous for its “Butter Baked” cookies.
It also becomes a place of murder, deception and corporate duplicity, in a manner that probably never happened at Pepperidge Farms or Famous Amos. In fact, the setting is one of the elements that makes this goofy, flawed but enjoyable guilty pleasure so scrumptious.
Faye Dunaway plays Charlene, the head of Mrs. Appleby’s, a role that most assume is a winking homage to her Oscar winning role in “Network” (1976) but is reportedly her impression of then-Paramount Pictures CEO Sherry Lansing.
By the way, the last name of Dunaway’s character is Towne, a possible reference to the screenwriter of “Chinatown.”
One of the star players on Charlene’s team is Peter, played by Timothy Hutton. Peter is in analysis, with a shrink (who is never seen on camera) who warns him to keep his “Mr. Hyde side” repressed; it’s interesting that this angle is present, since Hutton had previously starred in George A. Romero’s adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Dark Half” (also 1993), though that film stomps the accelerator, whereas this one doesn’t.
Scott Coffey nicely plays Peter’s initial assistant, whose sudden need to ditch his job and be present during his wife’s delivery inspires the hiring of Kris (Lara Flynn Boyle). Kris’ introduction to the film doesn’t feel as contrived as one would expect, as we see all too clearly that Peter is outmatched by his job requirements, feeble attempts to reconnect with his wife (Maura Tierney) and his soft shoe efforts to maintain stability through therapy.
Late night shenanigans of Arsenio Hall transitions to an AM TV show, a nice indication that Peter’s night flew by, opportunities to catch up have come and gone. He needs help.
Flynn Boyle gets a Sharon Stone-esque intro, with the camera lingering on her legs and presence before allowing us to absorb who Kris is as a true force of nature. We get a fun montage where we see just how wondrous Kris is, as a long line at the copy machine, deadlines that are minutes away from passing and a heavy report that’s due on a different floor are no match for her focus and go-get-‘em approach to business.
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During a late night brain-storming session, Kris suggests that the cookie jars should have a heart on them, indicating they’re healthier than the competition, an ahead of its time suggestion (most people I know only purchase cookies with the Organic symbol or Gluten-free labeling on the packaging).
She may have a hidden agenda, but let’s give Kris some credit – she’s terrific at this job, in a way Peter never is. She assures her boss, “This isn’t about sex, Peter, it’s about work.” She’s really sharp.
During the first act, Hutton and Flynn Boyle seem like they’re enough to carry this trashy sleeper. Hutton even gets away with saying, “What, Me Worry?,” a risky line, as this whole thing already feels ready made for a Mad Magazine parody.
The cookie company rhetoric and cutthroat business practices therein are interesting, if off the mark. During a board meeting, someone states, “Where does everyone in the ’90s want to go? Back to the 1950s!” That’s incorrect – thanks somewhat to Quentin Tarantino, fashion choices and music of the day, that decade owes more to the 1970s.
However, the big, clunky computers and water coolers (where most office workers reportedly met to discuss Flynn Boyle’s “Twin Peaks” during breaks) distinguish this visually as very of its day.
The first time the film steps wrong is when Flynn utters the unworkable line, “Peter, Peter, cookie eater, had a temp and couldn’t keep her.” I wonder if this was once the tag line for the movie poster and Holland decided something that ridiculous might work better as dialog.
If that was the case, he was wrong.
In the following scene, there’s a shock-gore reveal, with a hand that gets caught in a paper shredder, which feels like a different movie intruding upon the one we’re watching. Suddenly, the changing lengths of Flynn Boyle’s hair on a scene-to-scene basis make sense, as the obvious reshoots begins to overtake the film like picnic ants on a neglected Oreo.
Not long after, there’s a bizarre scene, set in a grocery store, where a cookie taste test results in bloody aftermath. The scenes added to this much later, in order to alter the genre from comic thriller to outright horror, aggressively, but not entirely, choke the charm out of it.
Dunaway is spectacular in this and has a way with her lines that make even the throwaways sound like keepers. Behold her saying, “New York is going to look for sacrificial lambs and I promise you…it won’t be me.”
The rising body count gives us another keeper from Dunaway- “In case you haven’t noticed, we’re running out of executives around here.”
Oliver Platt gives an A+ performance as always, even in something this silly, and Steven Weber, a year after his sexually frank turn in “Single White Female” (1992), once again brings a welcome edge to a role far outside of his work on “Wings.”
Tierney is playing a patient ex-wife who, when you really think about it, is kind of awful: Peter’s missed dates and failures are forgiven, at one point, via some pearls and a pair of Air Jordans. Just why isn’t Peter more into Kris?
Whenever it’s a straight faced but uproarious depiction of the corporate ladder battle at a cookie company, it’s succeeds in spite of itself. Lines like, “Lighten up, we’re in the cookie business” and “the molasses thing was a killer” are funnier here than in any intentional comedy.
Listening to Charlene accuse Peter of selling secrets and giving the chewy almond recipe to a competitor is a riot. So is the (presumably) intentional throwaway line, where Peter, post-bloody grocery store taste test, glibly tells a co-worker why their company retreat has been catered with hot dogs: “We sell oatmeal and shrapnel cookies, what do you expect?”
I couldn’t help but notice the cookies that Mrs. Appleby’s sells are a bummer- “Oatmeal Raison Classic” and “Chewy Almond”? Has anyone there ever thought of adding chocolate chips?
At one point, someone actually says, “I got my hands caught in the cookie jar.” Did the screenwriters start with that line and build the movie around it?
A sequence involving a bar fight and Peter ending up in the gutter as it rains in an alleyway are as film noir as this gets. Likewise, a great score by Frederic Talgorn gives this a grand, classy feel that it doesn’t really deserve.
Late in the film, Kris tells Peter she’s sleeping with Charlene – it’s the only time it comes up. I wonder if this out-of-nowhere touch was meant to make Kris akin to Catherine Trummel, the bisexual femme fatale murder suspect of “Basic Instinct” (1992). “The Temp” has a single scene suggesting sex (it winds up being a copout) but could hardly be called an erotic thriller.
It concludes with a famously added-much-later finale, in which a rocking light fixture paying tribute to “Psycho” (1960) and a scuffle do little to tidy things up.
If anything, the intended gotcha-factor of the last scene is eclipsed by a final reveal that isn’t ambiguous but truly confused. So much of “The Temp” is wildly entertaining in spite of itself, it’s a shame that it couldn’t end on a satisfying note. It’s like eating a sugar-free cookie alternative and immediately wishing you had just invested in the Double-Stuff Oreos you truly wanted.
The new Scream Factory Collector’s Edition Blu-ray is the kind of retrospective longtime fans of the film probably assumed would never happen. Turns out Holland’s film has enough of a cult following to merit this edition and it’s a worthwhile purchase, especially if the only version you own is the old disc, which, aside from the film itself, had absolutely nothing in terms of special features.
Here, we get extensive, welcome interviews with Holland, the film’s editor, the make-up designer and co-star Lin Shaye. The main event is hearing Holland and Scott Conrad give their enjoyably grouchy recollections of how the film became severely compromised.
The two big, unfortunately cut sequences (a far more outrageous original ending and a grotesque, “Creepshow”-inspired nightmare sequence) are only described at length and never shown. Still, time has allowed the director and editor to giver no holds barred anecdotes about the film’s original, quirkier, and unseen director’s cut, versus the final result. Add the zippy and deceptively dark trailer and you have an engrossing package.
“The Temp” is more a guilty pleasure than anything else, as its pleasures are often undercut by tonal inconsistencies. Still, if you’ve ever wondered what kind of cutthroat business practices are like at a Nabisco power lunch or within the elf vs. elf environment of the Keebler Tree, I have a movie for you.
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