The Efficiency Expert (1992)

Poster for the film, The Efficiency Expert (1992).

“Tell me something. Did you ever talk to any of these five hundred people we’ve put out of work? Did you ever find out how many kids they have? Or what they do in their spare time? Or if they ever raced slot cars?”

It’s hard to believe that a film that stars Anthony Hopkins, Russell Crowe, Ben Mendelsohn, and Toni Collette could be unknown, but aside from Hopkins, most of this ensemble cast were still obscure actors when The Efficiency Expert (aka Spotswood) came out in 1992. The only reason I learned about this film is because I stumbled upon the DVD in the bargain bin at a post exchange in Germany.

The film takes place in the 1960s, which, according to the film’s intro, “were a period of great upheaval, followed by downheaval and, eventually, heaval.” (Heaval, by the way, is not a real word.) This sets the tone for this quirky film, which largely follows the trope about the outsider from the big city who is sent to middle-of-nowhere town and gets won over (literally, in a game of slot cars) by the local residents. The film’s earnestness helps it transcend the familiar contours of its material, largely thanks to the acting of the great Ben Mendelsohn in an early role.

The film was actually produced in the 1990s, and like the classic film, Local Hero, from a decade earlier, can be viewed as a criticism of American corporatism and globalization. Anthony Hopkins plays an “efficiency expert” sent from a large consulting firm to downsize a struggling moccasin factory in Spotswood, Australia. Touring the factory, Hopkins’ character is perplexed by the lackadaisical work ethic of its people, who seem to spend the majority of their days chatting rather than actually building anything. He installs room dividers and staggers lunch breaks in an attempt to increase productivity, but the workers rebel, albeit in their polite, Spotswood-y way. Ultimately, Hopkins advises the owner that he will need to lay off 50% of the workforce if the factory is to stay afloat.

What was interesting to me about the film was the sustainable working culture that it depicted. As someone who once worked a temporary, seasonal job at a US Postal Service distribution warehouse, brought in to help sort the surge of mail during the peak holiday months, I could definitely recognize the slower pacing of the regular employees, which can come across as lazy to outsiders. But when you do this type of work for 20, 30 years, it’s important to approach it sustainably. The regulars would often tell me to slow down, and would sometimes even sabotage the machines to halt the lines if things were running too efficiently. The daily conversations among the regulars, as they worked besides the conveyors or disappeared for short breaks within the hidden nooks of the factory, far from being distractions, were the fuel that sustained the workers and the glue that held their community together.

The film harbingers several other similarly themed 90s films such as Brassed Off (1996) and The Full Monty (1997), which celebrated the working class and their efforts to fight off waves of privatization, union busting, downsizing, and outsourcing that swept across the West in the late 20th century, destroying the middle class and eviscerating communities built upon the manufacturing economy. These down-to-earth films are almost a counterpoint to the “greed is good” dogma of eighties films like Wall Street (1987), and presage the massive anti-globalization protests that occurred around the world at the turn of the millennium, including the infamous WTO protests in Seattle in 1999.

The Efficiency Expert is currently streaming for free on YouTube.

Ebert: 3/4
My rating: 7/10