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Haiku Tunnel

The "workplace comedy" is a tried-and-true formula that resonates on two basic levels: First, most of us work — so there's a situation that's immediately familiar on some level to a vast number of viewers. Second, most of us hate our jobs, which provides endless opportunity for humor. While workplace comedy tends to primarily dominate television sitcoms, the last few years have also seen a spate of similarly themed movies (Clockwatchers, Bartleby, Office Space, and waydowntown, to name just four), generally aimed at urban cubicle-dwellers. Most are low-budget indie films made by people who have just escaped, as they see it, from the soulless hell of working purely for the paycheck when they'd much rather be doing something creative. Like, say, make movies about how awful it is to work for a living. An audience favorite when it premiered at Sundance, Haiku Tunnel (2001) differs from others of its ilk mainly in writer/star Josh Kornbluth's genuine affection for the workplace. Kornbluth notes the fears, annoyances, idiocies and inequities in cubicle-land, but he shares them with a refreshing lack of self-conscious, Gen-X cynicism. Kornbluth plays a character named "Josh Kornbluth" who, he points out at the top of Haiku Tunnel, is a fictional character. The lawyer-characters he works for, he says, are nothing like the real-life lawyers he worked for when he — the real Josh Kornbluth — was a temp office worker. No, he explains, this story is all fiction, and it all takes place in a fictional place called ... San Franclisco. A wannabe-novelist, Josh claims to love being a temporary office worker. But in reality, he's depressed, lonely, incapable of committing to a relationship, and in need of some serious therapy. Which is why, when he takes a new temp assignment at the law firm of Schuyler and Mitchell ("S&M"), it's the promise of a benefits package that'll pay for his psychotherapy that sways him to accept an offer to "go perm." But as soon as he does, everything starts to crumble — his boss gives him 17 Very Important Letters to type up and mail, and the bulk of the film concerns Josh's blackly comic, passive-aggressive efforts to both fulfill and avoid that assignment.

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Kornbluth is a "monologist" and Haiku Tunnel is adapted from a piece he debuted in San Francisco in 1990 (and was later collected with two other monologues in the book "Red Diaper Baby"). The film is actually weakest when it retains the feel of a monologue; Kornbluth speaking directly into the camera really isn't all that funny. But Kornbluth (and his director, brother Jacob Kornbluth) learned a valuable lesson that other monologists like Spaulding Gray and Eric Bogosian never did: He put other people in his movie. Warren Keith is hilarious as Josh's tax-lawyer boss, capturing every bit of managerial doublespeak and distracted glad-handing with an undercurrent of shimmering evil. Harry Shearer shows up for a short scene as a corporate trainer, leading a day-long seminar on such scintillating topics as fixing a jammed copier and where the staples are kept. Most memorable is San Francisco performance artist Helen Shumaker as the spooky head secretary, Marlina D'Amore; in one of the film's funniest segments, Josh takes her up on her offer to call her at home if he has any problems — at 2 a.m., leaving a rambling, hours-long message on her voice mail, blathering about his personal life. While not as sharply honed as Mike Judge's hilarious Office Space, the brothers Kornbluth have created a darkly funny yet affectionate homage to office-workers everywhere, and a welcome addition to the genre. Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Haiku Tunnel offers a lot for fans of the movie, starting with a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. A very charming commentary track by Josh and Jacob Kornbluth reveals the immense affection they have for the film. They have funny, "gee our movie was soooo low-budget" anecdotes for almost every scene — pointing out every single production manager/costume designer/script supervisor who stood in as an extra or said a line; discussing the use of "latex paint you have to get at a sex store" to turn Josh's boss into the Devil for a fantasy sequence; and laughing about how their lack of money meant they couldn't pay for the building they were shooting in to turn on air conditioning on the weekend: "The audience can't tell, but it was nine-hundred-thousand-million degrees Fahrenheit in that room." Outtakes and deleted scenes also are on board, including Shearer's ad libs, plus theatrical trailers and director's notes. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor



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