|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 16 April 2002|
"The Temp" is in reality a theatrical release, but one can be forgiven for thinking it was made for TV. After all, this kind of thriller, although fairly common in theatres in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, is now mostly relegated to the small screen. It’s down to a formula: Person A is trying to get his or her life together after making some bad decisions. Person B shows up and is incredibly helpful. Then Person B does some things that make Person A vaguely suspicious, with Person B seeming more and more ominous as the story continues.
Here, Person A is corporate executive Peter Derns (Timothy Hutton), separated from his wife and child after a bout of bad behavior on his part. Peter’s company, Mrs. Appleby’s, is in the throes of trying to launch a new cookie, an enterprise everyone undertakes with the seriousness of developing missile technology. Peter’s assistant has a family emergency and Peter must resort to a temp. Enter Kris Bolin (Lara Flynn Boyle), a super-capable super-secretary who streamlines Peter’s work life. Peter is grateful – until Kris starts campaigning for a permanent job. On his first day back, Peter’s regular assistant suffers a gruesome accident, so Kris is indeed kept on. Then Peter’s business rivals start suffering strange fatalities …
The above scenario, while hardly unique, is in itself neither a recipe for success or disaster (just as alien stories can mean anything from "E.T." to "Plan Nine From Outer Space"). The screenplay by Kevin Falls, from a story by Falls & Tom Engelman, starts out on an even keel, with a few intriguing possibilities, and director Tom Holland sets up the promise of some intriguingly nasty complications with the first big incident, involving a paper shredder.
Unfortunately, no one involved knows how to raise the stakes properly. We never get a satisfying explanation of Kris’s background or her agenda – or why, indeed, anybody would go to all this trouble over a corporation that seems so anonymous and unglamorous. There’s no doubt a way to mine this for chilling irony, but "The Temp" is too invested in tradition to be sly about the status quo. For Peter to maintain his position as good guy, the movie hews almost to Hays Code conduct – our hero resists Kris’ seductive charms and the "Mr. Hyde"-like deeds that drove his wife away turn out to be far less aggressive than early dialogue suggests. Kris’ wiles are nothing that couldn’t be seen on television and the violence – the paper shredder aside – is all fairly mild. If it weren’t for a bit of rough language, the movie might have skated by with a PG-13, but a rating more kid-friendly than an R is the kiss of non-credibility for this genre. The ending is such an anti-climactic wet fizzle that it wouldn’t be surprising to hear there were last-minute reshoots, substituting the dialogue scene we get for something more action-oriented that was deemed not to work.
In any event, "The Temp" feels and sounds largely like a TV movie. It doesn’t entirely look like a TV movie, thanks to Holland’s muscular tracking shots and production design indicating money was spent, but it also doesn’t have much visual identity of its own. As for the sound, although the mix is 5.1 surround, there are almost no directional effects. We get some minor, unexciting specific crowd sounds at a basketball game in Chapter 3, a bit of traffic noise in the rears on Channel 5 and some good rain all around on Chapter 10. Chapter 2 has some fun with Frederic Talgorn’s score, using cheery romantic comedy music as Kris zips around the office aiding Peter, and Chapter 8 has a lightly chilling effect with a vocal loop played back on computer in an isolated area. However, there’s nothing here to challenge a sound system or even particularly intrigue the listener.
Hutton, Boyle and their colleagues – who include Steven Weber, Oliver Platt, Maura Tierney, Dwight Schultz and Faye Dunaway – all give decent, appropriate performances. They make "The Temp" the kind of workmanlike filler that one might stick with if it happened to be on TV in the afternoon. Making the effort to rent or purchase the DVD, however, should probably be left to those with serious interest in the complete filmographies of one or more of the actors and/or filmmakers involved.