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Going Perm 

A self-sabotaging office worker makes the transition from stage to screen

Wednesday, Sep 12 2001
In the new low-budget indie comedy Haiku Tunnel, former temporary office worker Josh Kornbluth plays "Josh Kornbluth," a temporary office worker who, early in the film, faces a premature midlife crisis -- whether to stay a temp or "go perm." After great hesitation, the company makes him an offer he can't refuse -- it'll pick up his psychotherapy tab -- and he is forced to take the plunge. That this decision is presented as the employment equivalent of getting married -- a life-changing commitment not to be entered into lightly -- is the source of much humor during the film's first third.

The name and job correlations might suggest to the very sharpest moviegoers that maybe -- just maybe -- Haiku Tunnel is a tad autobiographical. But Kornbluth (who co-directed with his brother Jacob and co-wrote the screenplay both with Jacob and with John Bellucci) lets us know up front that it couldn't be that autobiographical, what with the libel laws and all. Just because the real Kornbluth used to work at a Bay Area law firm named Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro (PMS) and the fictional Kornbluth works for a similar law firm named Schuyler & Mitchell -- work it out on your own -- doesn't mean that the film is a thinly veiled portrait of real people.

In fact, Josh assures the audience at the beginning -- addressing the camera directly -- the setting isn't even San Francisco, despite an overwhelming physical resemblance: It's a similar, but wholly fictional, city named San Franclisco. These opening scenes are reminiscent of the beginning of This Is Spinal Tap, where director Marty DiBergi (director Rob Reiner) speaks to us from his editing room. The use of this technique is not surprising when you realize that the screenplay is based on a monologue Kornbluth wrote and performed onstage in the early '90s.

Wisely, he has not chosen merely to film his old stage act, à la Eric Bogosian, Lily Tomlin, and Spalding Gray; few performers -- not necessarily including the aforementioned -- can transfer the immediacy of a live, one-person show to film effectively enough to hold the audience's undivided attention. Richard Pryor is the most successful example, but even Tomlin, one of the few comedians of the last 30 years to approach Pryor's brilliance, lost something in the transplanting of her Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe to the big screen.

Add to that the fact that Kornbluth is not an immediately prepossessing on-screen presence: Roly-poly, bespectacled, and balding, he looks more than a little like Jay Sherman, the animated protagonist of the TV show The Critic. (And, sure, there's some truth to the notion that that's how film critics look. What do you expect of people who spend most of their time sitting on their duffs, straining to make out details on the screen, and scratching their heads in befuddled frustration over the crap that gets released?) His performing, at least in Haiku Tunnel, is broad and clunky enough to suggest that he is more of a storyteller than an actor.

So, with his collaborators, Kornbluth has changed his monologue into an ensemble piece. While he continues to narrate throughout, and the visuals are sometimes merely illustrations to the text, he has made the material into a more appropriately cinematic work. (Essayist Barry Yourgrau did something similar several years ago in The Sadness of Sex.)

The center of the piece -- Josh's freaking out over the transition to "perm" status -- is symbolized by 17 letters that new boss Bob Shelby (Warren Keith) asks him to type up and mail on his first day. There is no doubt that, were the usually reliable and efficient Josh still a temp, the letters would be in the mail almost immediately; it is only when he changes status that they become the embodiment of sheer dread, pursuing Josh like some hound of heaven.

Even with the nurturing aid of his co-workers -- Mindy (Amy Resnick), Clifford (Brian Thorstenson), and DaVonne (June Lomena) -- he manages to continue to screw up the painfully simple task of getting a handful of envelopes into the postal system. This is not ineptness; it's self-sabotage in the face of commitment. You want to grab the poor schlub by the lapels, slap his face, and scream, "Just mail the goddamned letters, already!"

After a few very funny early sequences, tricked up with grotesque, surreal editing and camerawork, the movie gets bogged down a bit during the first third. Much of the problem is Kornbluth's schnook persona, which, while sympathetic, can wear thin quickly. He is such a recognizable type that you may think, "Why pay for a movie when I can get this from my friends for free?"

While it is not nearly as satisfying overall as Mike Judge's Office Space, the pre-eminent cubicle comedy of recent years, Haiku Tunnel eventually overcomes the limitations of Kornbluth's manner. Whether or not the film is purely autobiographical, he clearly knows the terrain. Anyone who has ever worked in a business office will recognize such types as the severe head secretary (Helen Shumaker) and the invariably counterproductive computer system administrator (Joshua Raoul Brody). The introduction of a presumably doomed love affair with a "summer associate" (Sarah Overman), essentially an exploited law student, is a welcome plot complication in the final third. By the end, as the inspiring conclusion to Stravinsky's Firebird builds on the soundtrack, we're gratified that both Josh the character and Josh the filmmaker have finally triumphed.

About The Author

Andy Klein


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