The intriguing co-starring package of Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton, appearing in her first movie, will no doubt lure flocks of unsuspecting fun-seekers to "Nine to Five" -- until word gets around that it is more of an ordeal than a fling.
The new facetious depressant from Colin Higgins -- the screenwriter and now director who has parlayed "Harold and Maude," "The Silver Streak" and "Foul Play" into one of the more baffling winning streaks on record -- runs a merely weak comic premise into the ground with coarse, laborious execution.
A farce with an unsightly vindictive streak, "Nine to Five" squanders its costars in the roles of fuming secretaries who conspire to turn the tables on their domineering fool of a boss. Dabney Coleman, who's good at playing sneaks, is obliged to soak up excessive abuse as this absurd whipping boy, labeled a "sexist lying hypocritical bigot" by writers Higgins and Patricia Resnick, in one of their more original moments of humorous expression.
The film goes into a permanent nose dive after a perky, scene-setting quarter hour or so. Escaping the office, the heroines try to console each other over a drink and then continue the party over supper, getting silly on pot. They share fantasies about what they'd like to do to the boss if he were at their vengeful mercies. Each fantasy is methodically depicted, and as the klutzy, tongue-in-cheek segments accumulate -- Fonda envisioning herself as a big-game hunter, Parton herself as a domineering cowgirl and Tomlin herself as a Disneyesque ingenue with murder in her eye, a Snow White who administers poison -- the movie coughs, sputters and otherwise signals a prolonged death rattle.
The next morning a highly dubious misunderstanding leads Tomlin to fear that she might actually have poisoned Coleman, and the costars waste a reel or two frantically messing about a hospital ward and heisting a corpse. A dumb idea from the outset, this situation goes on and on and then terminates without a payoff.
More tedious maddeningly implausible exertions ensue when the slap-happy trio somehow manages to abduct the boss and keep him locked up for several weeks while instituting changes that transform the office into a utopia, revolutionized in the twinkling of an eye by job sharing, flex time, day care and perhaps most important of all, a fresh color scheme.
Despite the tonier socio-political pretensions, these working girls don't act appreciably smarter than the bubbleheaded housewives in "How To Beat the High Cost of Living" earlier this year.Fonda enters in a dowdy disguise that might amount to something on Carol Burnett but does nothing to bring out the comedienne in Fonda.
The ostensible brains of the outfit, Tomlin's character seems to degenerate into the most incorrigible scatterbrain. The only reassuring aspect is Parton's adorable, generous-proportioned sunniness. She seems an instantly likable natural on the movie screen, too. Given reasonably flattering material, there's no reason why she shouldn't endear herself to contemporary moviegoers as much as Mae West, Alice Faye or Betty Grable once did.