Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #62 The Temp (1993)


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I’ve written about a lot of different kinds of movies for this column but I gravitate towards movies that hit me right in the nostalgia sweet spot, during those magical years I was a teenager, an era of pop culture I look back wistfully on despite every moment of my adolescence being a study in abject misery with the notable exception of the ones I escaped my teen gloom through the entertainment that I loved.

I was excited, within reason, to re-watch Tom Holland’s 1993 Fatal Attraction/Hand That Rocks The Cradle knockoff because when it was released I was a passionate 17 year old Blockbuster clerk whose intense, soul-consuming love of film was in no small part onanistic in nature. 

So The Temp was perfect for me: sleazy and sordid, an erotic thriller showcase for the tightly wound sensuality of star Lara Flynn Boyle that promised much in the way of leering T&A, adult situations and possibly even brief nudity. 

The Temp is an undistinguished example of a subgenre that flourished first in the aftermath of 1987’s Fatal Attraction and then enjoyed a resurgence when Curtis Hanson’s zeitgeist-capturing but seemingly half-forgotten 1992 surprise smash The Hand That Rocks the Cradle came out of nowhere and cleaned up by appealing pruriently and shamelessly to the prevailing fears and anxieties of the time. 

These cynical, socially conservative thrillers played into a culture-wide backlash against feminism and the advancement of women in society by portraying female ambition and sexuality as a toxic and dangerous force that will upend the divine status quo unless contained and subdued.


What, these movies asked breathlessly and obnoxiously, would you do if there was someone sexy in your life who wanted to fuck you, and kill you, thankfully, in that order? An intrigued nation answered that that first part sounded pretty good, but the second one not as good and it seems like the two are a package deal, you can’t have the one without the other.

These movies reinforce the status quo of heterosexual matrimonial monogamy by depicting men who cheat on their wives, or are sorely tempted to cheat on their wives like Timothy Hutton’s hard-charging business bro Peter Derns in The Temp as largely innocent victims to the in-your-face sexuality and sinister scheming of temp turned colleague Kris Bolin, played by Lara Flynn Boyle as a breathy, teasing psychopathic sex kitten sociopath in tight skirts and push-up bras. 

Peter works for a cookie company that needs to raise dough so badly that they’ve been taken over by a major conglomerate. Things are anything but sweet in the cookie game. In The Temp, it’s literally a kill or be killed environment where, to get ahead, a woman might need to murder three or four competitors if they get in her way.


If you let sexy, assertive women into the workplace it’s only a matter of time until they’re seducing the boss, murdering the boss or murdering other co-workers in colorful and exotic ways as a way of getting to the boss. 

Women—in the workplace? In The Temp, that is a terrifying development with deadly ramifications for straight men who just want to ogle the shapely females in their midst, and maybe do a little more while they’re at it. 

But when Peter’s male assistant bails on him when his wife’s water breaks, he has no choice but to work with scarily efficient, just plain scary Kris, who quickly makes herself indispensable and suspect (in Peter’s eyes and the films) by making suggestions like using molasses instead of chemicals that give her a leg up in the cut-throat world of selling cookies to families.


The Temp, like way too many films of its age, including the many films Michael Douglas made as a public service to warn innocent, unsuspecting heterosexual white businessmen and cops of the terrible danger sexually assertive women pose to their marriages, careers and ultimately lives, The Temp seems to think the primary victims of sexual harassment are rage-choked dudes and also that it’s less sexual harassment than “sexy harassment.”

Sexual harassment is a terrible real-life scourge. “Sexy harassment”, on the other hand, is just good clean, dirty fun, a matter of bosses and their kittenish secretaries flirting outrageously during business hours and maybe doing a whole lot more after punching out every night. Sexual harassment ruins lives and careers. Sexy harassment spices things up in a way the wives and hubbies do NOT need to know about. 

Sexual harassment involves traumatized women being objectified and leered at and made to feel like nothing more than sex objects. Sexy harassment, in sharp contrast, involves playful, flirtatious women being objectified and leered at and made to feel like nothing more than sex objects—and loving it! 


Kris is only supposed to be temp for a while but she isn’t above arranging an accident involving a malfunctioning paper shredder so that she can continue to get paid modestly to work for a cookie company that is a deadly hotbed of intrigue, lies and murderous calculation. And snickerdoodles, of course. 

The Temp leans so heavy on the cookie stuff that I began to wonder if Cookie Monster was an uncredited script doctor on the film, that they said, “Hey, all these scenes involving cookies seem a little on the nose and excessive. Mind toning in down a little?” And he replied, “No, Cookie world best milieu for mediocre erotic thriller. Audience look at chocolate chippy, fudge macaroons, cookie jar full of oatmeal raisin cookies, be happy, ignore rest of film. Also, me no want screenwriting credit. Movie not do well with critics or audiences. Timothy Hutton not put butts in seat. Lara Flynn Boyle TV actress, not movie star.”

It turned out Cookie Monster was right in that The Temp was a sizable flop despite its powerful and timely message that sexy women in business are a menace and must be stopped before they do even more damage to the psyches and lives of horny creeps like Kris’ boss turned colleague, who desperately wants to have sex with his assistant but manages to sublimate that lust into being angry at Kris and anyone he thinks she might be fucking, including a colleague played by Oliver Platt and a professional rival played by Steven Weber. 


Timothy Hutton versus Steven Weber is some peak caucasity, some pure white bread nonsense between a VERY poor man’s Michael Douglas and a guy who tells his friend, in a line that really captures the movie’s savage depiction of the cookie industry, “I take no prisoners and I eat the wounded.”

Considering how ugly and vicious the cookie business is here, he may not be speaking symbolically. There may be an extended cut of The Temp somewhere that features a scene where Steven Weber’s professional vulture mixes the blood and viscera of a vanquished professional rival into his company’s cookie batter and devours it to gain their strength. 

It’s not entirely clear whether he’s joking or not, just as it’s not apparent whether The Temp understands the absurdity of depicting the cookie business as something so vicious and dangerous Mossad operatives, KGB agents and N.A.V.Y Seals would be too terrified to enter it. 


The Temp is credited to Tom Holland, who earned minor Frightmaster status as the screenwriter of the surprisingly not-terrible Psycho II, where Norman Bates gets an ill-advised outside job as a short order cook that forces him to stare at knives for long periods of time and doggedly fight temptation, writer-director of Fright Night, director of Child’s Play and the enjoyable terrible Stephen King adaptation Thinner and multiple episodes of Tales From the Crypt. 

But you could be mistaken for assuming that the Male Gaze somehow gained sentience and directed the movie uncredited. The camera is forever ogling Kris in tight, sexy work attire, leering appreciatively at every curve and growing tumescent with arousal at every breathily delivered come-on. Thematically, The Temp judges Kris harshly for her ambition, her aggressive, unapologetic sexuality, her scheming and, lastly, the various horrible crimes she commits. Visually, its attitude is “Get a load of this foxy little number!” 

The Temp seems to be of the mindset that if Kris didn’t want to be treated like a sex object by everyone she works with, and the movie as a whole, she wouldn’t be such a damn tease. 


As a mystery, The Temp is almost impressively idiotic. Kris tells everyone she has a husband and son when the picture of her “family” clearly looks like the photograph that comes with the frame. This leads to the climactic revelation that her “family” IS, in fact the picture that came with the frame. 

Peter becomes suspicious when Kris says she graduated from Stanford. How, for the love of God, he wonders, could someone who matriculated at a good college like Sanford possibly have a garbage hell job for losers like, um, temping at a cookie company? It’s a weirdly classist conceit; my wife has three post-graduate degrees, including ones from University of Chicago and Brown and she probably makes less as a preschool teacher than she would as a temp at a cutthroat cookie company. 

This is the kind of movie where you feel bad for the actors whose characters make it all the way to the end because it means they had to spend the most time with the nonsense. Oliver Platt, for example, plays the kind of character who loudly declares his deadly allergy for wasps and then, with delicious inevitability, gets to exit the movie with plenty of time left on the clock when, you guessed it, he dies by way of wasp sting. Who could have seen that coming?

I spent much of The Temp feeling sorry for Faye Dunaway, who does what she can with the unfairly Golden Raspberry-winning role of Peter and Kris’ boss. It says something deeply troubling about how we treat our greatest actresses and icons that decades into one of the most remarkable film careers in history Dunaway signed on to support Timothy fucking Hutton and Lara Flynn Boyle.

Holland shoots this like a horror movie as much as a thriller. The kills are gruesome and moderately inventive but the fundamental horror at the film’s core is female sexuality, its monster a woman who knows what she wants and goes after it in ways that break all the rules, legal and otherwise, and offend the movie’s hypocritical moral code in ways its equally as odious male lead somehow does not.


As an erotic thriller, The Temp is scared of sex and devoid of thrills. In a post #Metoo world its gender politics and misogyny are particularly galling; it’s aged terribly. It was glaringly sexist and reactionary and has only grown more misogynistic in the ensuing twenty-six years. 

It’s not that we’ve grown less sexist and disapproving of sexually assertive women; we’re just a tiny bit more subtle about our culture-wide fear of female sexuality and ambition these days. 

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