MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Ron Livingston (Peter), Jennifer Aniston (Joanna), Stephen Root (Milton), Gary Cole (Bill Lumbergh), David Herman (Michael Bolton), Ajay Naidu (Samir), Richard Riehle (Tom Smykowski), Diedrich Bader (Lawrence)
"Office Space" should have started with a brief dedication: "This film is dedicated to anyone who has ever worked in a cubicle."
This film, the first live-action offering from Mike Judge, creator of "Beavis and Butt-head" and "King of the Hill," is a wry tale of vengeance against cubicle culture, and anyone who has ever worked in one will find much to laugh about. I, for one, have worked in a cubicle that was exactly the same as the ones portrayed here (gray, generic, soul-deadening). My first job out of college was as an assistant editor for a publication company that shall remain nameless because the president might find this web page and sue me for defamation (which is right in step with his evil character). That company I worked for had much in common with Initech, the fictional computer software firm depicted in this film: lousy, self-absorbed management; tedious, standardized working conditions; and a policy of hiring and firing that has nothing to do with an employee's merits, but everything to do with the whim of management and their stock options.
While many previous movies that were supposedly jabs at corporate culture, such as "The Secret of My Success" (1987) and "Working Girl" (1988), were about the small person sticking it to the big guy by making it to the top, "Office Space" has no such pretensions. Here, victory is not when you become a suit, but when you go against everything the suit stands for.
Which is exactly what the main character, Peter (Ron Livingston), does. You see, Peter hates his job at Initech, and describes it like this: "Since I started working, every single day has been worse than the day before, so that every day you see me is the worst day of my life." It doesn't get much bleaker than that.
After visiting an "occupational hypnotherapist" with his flaky girlfriend, Peter decides to do what he's always wanted to do: nothing. So, in a hypnotized state of unnatural calm, he basically does everything a "good" worker is not supposed to do. He skips work, opting instead to sleep, and when he does show up, he arrives late in a tee-shirt, jeans, and flip-flops. He removes one wall of his cubicle so he can look out the window, he skips half a day to go fishing and then guts the fish at his desk, and when his supervisor, the supremely annoying Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole), tells him they need to have a talk, Peter never lifts his eyes from the game of Tetris he's playing and asks Bill to come back later.
So what happens? Irony of all ironies, Peter gets promoted to upper management by a couple of efficiency experts who have been hired to get rid of unneeded employees. "That's a real straight shooter with upper management potential," one of them says after Peter tells them that he spends half his day "spacing out" and that he probably only works 15 minutes a week. Meanwhile, to further the irony, two of Peter's co-workers get fired: the unfortunately named Michael Bolton (David Herman), who constantly has to inform people that he is not related to the pop singer, and Samir (Ajay Naidu), a Middle Easterner who can't understand why no one can pronounce his last name. To get revenge, Peter, Michael, and Samir concoct a scheme to rip off the company, which leads to a number of problems since the scheme involves a computer virus that doesn't do what it's supposed to do (plus, it's an idea stolen from "Superman III"--surely the sign of a bad idea).
Of course, the plot is merely a bare structure on which Judge can hang all his rancorous attacks on the theories of corporate management as they have developed in the high tech '90s. Judge has already carved himself a lasting niche in popular culture lore, and if anyone is equipped to take on such a large project, it's him.
But, as it turns out, "Office Space" is comedically best in the small details. For anyone who has ever worked with a frustrating copy machine that eats paper and gives cryptic messages like "Load PC Letter," much of the film will ring true, and the sight of said copy machine being smashed with a baseball bat will be oddly satisfying. Of course, there's also the management's pathetic ideas about making work more "friendly" and "fun," which involve lousy birthday parties for the boss and "Hawaiian Shirt Day."
Peter's non-descript apartment building, with its paper-thin walls through which he can carry on conversations with his construction worker neighbor, Lawrence (Diedrich Bader), is a perfect symbol of middling career frustration. Meanwhile, the irksome Bill Lumbergh's blue Porsche with the vanity plate "MY PRSCH" is the perfect symbol of capitalistic obnoxiousness. Lumbergh is perhaps the film's greatest creation: a smarmy man in pink shirts and wind-proof hair who speaks in a slow, drawn-out monotone that's meant, in its own artificial way, to be pleasant, but comes off as positively maddening (he often sounds like the hippie teacher in "Beavis and Butt-head").
Judge also gets solid laughs from some of the eccentric employees at Initech, especially Milton (Stephen Root), who is an odd, mumbling, overweight man with bad skin and thick glasses that magnify his eyes so that they seem to be bugging out of his head. Milton was the center of the "Saturday Night Live" animated short films Judge based this feature on, but here he is mostly relegated to background humor (although he plays an important role in the ironic deus ex machina ending).
Judge shows himself to be a competent director of live action, as his previous experience has been entirely in the realm of animation. However, his screenplay is not as tight as it could be; some potentially hilarious long-running jokes are introduced and then left unexplored (such as Michael's unbefitting affection for ghetto rap), and some plot lines are terribly underdeveloped (such as Peter's relationship with a waitress played by Jennifer Aniston).
Nevertheless, he does bring out good performances from Livingston, Herman, and Naidu, who make up a nice, everyday cross-section of the American white collar workforce. Aniston is somewhat wasted in her small role, although she does have some funny scenes where she is being hounded by her nerdy manager at the Bennigans-like restaurant where she works because she isn't wearing enough "flair" (their word for zany buttons on her suspenders). It's a classic example of a manager who takes his position way too seriously, which, in all likelihood, is Judge's argument in the long run: It's just work. Live your life.
After all, this is from the guy who's made millions in Hollywood, yet refuses to leave his home in Austin, Texas. I like that about him.
©1999 James Kendrick