In the late 1980s and early 1990s, safe psychological thrillers had mostly supplanted the edgier resurgence of neo-noir. Thrillers like Pacific Heights, Sleeping With The Enemy, and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle were suspenseful star-laden affairs that were tailormade for wide theatrical releases. None of the chills were likely to disturb mainstream audiences and good triumphed over evil. Near the end of this Hollywood cycle, The Temp made its way into theaters in early 1993. Audiences had clearly moved as the neo-noir thriller barely made a ripple at the box office. And critics dismissed it. Now nearly 30 years later, is The Temp the perfect time capsule for fans of 90s psychological thrillers?
Follow a serious mental breakdown, junior executive Peter Herns struggles to get back into the swing of things at his job and his family life. But everything changes when his new temp assistant, Kris Bolin, arrives. Poised, motivated, and quick-thinking, Kris helps Peter score some big points with his boss. But other obstacles on the corporate ladder – including rival co-workers – are mysteriously removed. Soon Peter worries that his seemingly perfect temp may have a dark secret.
The Temp is a Cookie-Cutter 90s Mix of Neo-Noir and Psychological Thriller
Just how derivative is The Temp? Writers Kevin Falls and Tom Engelman don’t so much borrow the formula from prototypical 90s psychological thrillers like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Single White Female, or The Crush, as it cuts and pastes it. Straight out of the gate, The Temp gives Peter Derns a past history of paranoia to ensure no one believes him – of course, the audience is never in doubt. Act I introduces Lara Flynn Boyle’s ‘temptress’ “Kris Bolin” and dutifully sets up exactly what you expect to happen. Bad things happen to people in Peter’s way and, when Peters rejects Kris’ advance, bad things happen to him. Not surprisingly, no one believes him and Peter’s life spirals out of control. It a checklist approach to storytelling that at least tries to deviate from expectations in the final act.
Writers Kevin Falls and Tom Engelman don’t so much borrow the formula from prototypical 90s psychological thrillers like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Single White Female, or The Crush, as it cuts and pastes it.
What’s most frustrating about The Temp is that there was probably a better movie here. Director Tom Holland (Fright Night, Child’s Play) stylishly mixes neo-noir elements with some occasional suspense. But the thriller suffers from odd tonal shifts that hint at behind-the-scenes meddling. Sometimes The Temp feels like a neo-noir that wants to play it straight, while other times Holland seems to be making a tongue-in-cheek dark comedy. Frederic Talgorn’s score gives away the conflict as it often feels high camp. Though it’s never a satisfying thriller, Holland keeps the story moving at a brisk pace and the final scene is admittedly better than anything else in the movie.
The Temp Enjoys a Spoils of Riches From Its Cast
Anyone who grew up watching television and movies in 80s and 90 will at least enjoy The Temp’s time capsule casting. As Peter Derns, Timothy Hutton (The Haunting of Hill House) doesn’t have much to do but be the ‘everyman’ who quickly finds himself in over his head. It’s a thinly written character defined by terrible decision-making necessary to move the story forward. The Temp rounds out its supporting cast with a ‘who’s who’ of familiar faces from the era including Oliver Platt (Flatliners, Lake Placid), Dwight Schultz (The A-Team), Lin Shaye (Insidious), Maura Tierney, Steven Weber, and Faye Dunaway (Mommie Dearest). Most of the cast has little to do except for Schultz who cranks up the scene-chewing to about an 11.
Too bad the screenplay fails Boyle and the movie overall.
But it’s Lara Flynn Boyle who’s the real scene stealer as the titular temptress of The Temp. Clearly, Boyle is having fun playing the psychopathic corporate ladder climber. She invests the character with the mix of sultry and steely coldness one expects from a femme fatale in noir. Too bad the screenplay fails Boyle and the movie overall. In addition to its tonal shift, The Temp often feels like it wants to be a dark comedy skewering male corporate culture. Even its ending hints that the story could have taken a very different direction. Had The Temp double-downed on the possibility that its male protagonist inadvertently sabotaged the careers of not one, but two, women trying to navigate a patriarchal structure we might have had a much better movie.
The Temp Faded Into 90s Obscurity for a Reason
It doesn’t get much more 90s psychological thriller than The Temp. Just about every story beat could be exchanged with any other genre movie from the era – The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Single White Female, The Crush – and the end result would be the same. You could say that its story is … cookie-cutter. Somewhere in The Temp was a potentially clever mix of neo-noir and a dark comedy about corporate culture and sexism. And the thriller occasionally benefits from Holland’s talent. But the tonal shifts and overall commitment to a generic story make this a largely forgettable 90s effort.