A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

OFFICE SPACE: jjj
˝ 

10th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1999, R, 90 mins.

Peter: Ron Livingston / Joanna: Jennifer Aniston / Milton: Stephen Root / Bill Lumbergh: Gary Cole / Michael Bolton: David Herman / Samir: Ajay Naidu / Tom Smykowski: Richard Riehle / Lawrence: Diedrich Bader / Anne: Alexandra Wentworth

Written And directed by Mike Judge, based On His ``Milton'' Animated Shorts

"It's not that I'm lazy, it's that I just don't care!"
- Ron Livingston in OFFICE SPACE

Ummm….yeah. 

If all you movie goers out there could like rush out and watch this classic office satire as soon as possible that would be grrrreeeeaaat…um-kay? 

Mike Judge’s OFFICE SPACE is one of the best examples of a cinematic curveball that I can recall: it was a film that was kind of unceremoniously released back in 1999 (the year of absolute and insatiable STAR WARS /PHANTOM MENACE fever) with very little fanfare and advertising and – when no one went to see it – it died a slow box office death.  

Then, something special occurred that inevitably happens to all cult films: it began to find an audience when released on video…and the rest was history.  

Not only did the film win over a new legion of die hards, but it also managed to sneak its way into the cultural lexicon.  The best way to gauge a comedy film’s cult status is primarily with endless quotability, and OFFICE SPACE is unequivocally one of the most frequently quoted comedies of the last decade…by far. 

Even better is the fact that OFFICE SPACE – aside from being uproariously hilarious throughout – is also a spot-on and intelligently constructed social satire of office work in general.  Better than just about any recent film, it is so precisely observant of its targets: this is a film that goes out of its way to reveal how the claustrophobic conditions of cubicle life can utterly suffocate an ordinarily decent and hard working person to mental death.  Lesser films would have gotten bogged down with dumb sight gags, gross-out humor, and contrived plot developments (see WAITING), but Judge is far too shrewd for that sort of nonsense:  he’s has a sort of surgical precision with lampooning his subject, and best of all he is able to make just about every audience member easily relate to the 9-5 suffering and bottle-up anxiety of his characters. 

He sets this all up brilliantly within the first few minutes: We see the main character Peter Gibbons (in a solidly underplayed comic performance by Ron Livingston, who has always remained underrated) that is sitting in his car on the way to his job.  The traffic on the road is bumper to bumper and spans miles.  With very little movement, he can begins to feel the interior walls of the car closing in on him.  To find solace he looks outside and sees an elderly man with a walker that is actually chugging along more briskly than he is in the traffic.  He lets out one of those soul-crushing sighs that every one in the audience deeply understands: you know the day has started rotten when a geriatric in a walker is proceeding faster than your car. 

It’s those small and subtle touches that make OFFICE SPACE stand out, and they also reveal how intuitively Judge is able to observe human nature.  Consider another discretely funny moment that occurs during the same opening morning commute sequence where one of Peter’s co-workers, Michael Bolton (no, not that one, played by David Herman) is also dealing with the auto-congestion.  However, he seems more adjusted because he is singing alone with the gangster-rap on that is blaring out on his car stereo.  When he sees a black pedestrian slowly proceed by him, he abruptly locks the doors, lowers the volume of the stereo and stops singing aloud.  When the man passes – and Michael feels in the clear – he cranks up the wattage and goes back into joyously singing along with the black tunes.   

Again, it’s the subtlety of these scenes that pay off handsomely.  Judge has so fully realized all of his characters right down to the most minute nuances: at first they feel like caricatures, but as the film progresses they feel more real, which is greatly assisted by the manner Judge places them in recognizable environments.  More than that, he also manages to frame the film accurately within the understanding of the modern, late 1990's office world: he populates his story with tiny cubicles, endless and redundant memos, bad office fashion, Y2K paranoia, odiously calm and smarmy office managers, and a slew of workers that look more like they just arrived from the insane asylum.  This is a world when even the slightest and most inconsequential occurrence can turn a worker into a raving lunatic, like trying to deal with a “PC Load Letter Error” on a copy machine, trying to format TPS reports correctly, and making sure that your favourite red stapler does not get into the wrong hands. 

Of course, Judge at the time seemed like an unlikely choice to helm a live action comedy.  He was then very well known for creating MTV’s BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD (which later morphed into a very funny feature length film), which contained decidedly low brow humor that seemed like in direct contrast with the low-key ironic jokes on display in OFFICE SPACE (the marketing of the film tried to sell the film as a something akin to BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD, but set in the office world, which was a categorical blunder).  Consequentially, Judge found inspiration for the film on a series of four very crude, very short – but very hilarious – animated shorts called MILTON, which first aired on Liquid Television, then Night After with Allan Harvey and then finally and most famously on Saturday Night Live.  The true inspiration for those shorts was in the temp job Judge had beforehand alphabetizing work orders and a job he had for three months as an engineer, which he later described as “just awful.”

The whole mode of the comedy in both MILTON and later OFFICE SPACE can be seen in Judge’s prevailing view of America at the time: “It seems like every city now has these identical office parks with identical adjoining chain restaurants," he described, so it’s clear that he was aiming to provide a scathing attack on the repetitive staleness of American consumer and work life.  Ultimately, his ultimate motive was to show just how rigidly unglamourous and morale-destroying work life can be…and OFFICE SPACE unquestionably has its finger squarely and securely on the pulse of the millions of people that do slavishly slum their way through the small confines of their own offices in jobs that they secretly and passionately detest. 

And, boy, do the Gen-X slackers in OFFICE SPACE detest their jobs!  During one lunch break Peter laments about his lethargic and monotonous daily existence with his co-workers: “So I was sitting in my cubicle today," he explains, “and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that's on the worst day of my life.” 

I mean…dear God…it’s hard not to feel for these pathetic drones. 

Peter, as demonstrated, not only hates his job, but he loathes to the very core of his being.  Alas, thoughts on unemployment and being a bum terrify him even more.  He works at one of those faceless and charmless engineering offices called Initech, who specializes in performing Y2K upgrades to computer software.  He hates everything about his job: The reliable bumper to bumper morning traffic, the fact the main office door always gives him a carpet shock, the fact that the clock never seems to move as fast as its should, the fact that he has to hear the same robotic woman at the switch board repeat “Corporate Accounts payable, Nina speaking, just a moment” all day long, and the endless invasiveness of his soulless and annoyingly calm-spoken boss, Lumbergh (played in a iconic comedic performance by Gary Cole, not appreciated enough for his funny man parts).  Peter does have some relief in the form of his two best buddies, both of which work with him: there are Michael Bolton and Samir (Ajay Naidu), both of whom have there own share of grievances.  Mr. Bolton was unfairly saddled with having a name during a time of the height of a particular singer (“There was nothing wrong with it... until I was about 12 years old and that no-talent ass clown became famous and started winning Grammies!”) and with Samir he really hates it when the WASPS of the office can’t pronounce his name properly: “No one in this country can ever pronounce my name right. It's not that hard: Samir Na-gheen-an-a-jar. Nagheenanajar.". 

In direct contrast to all of the ranting and raving that this trio engages on everyday is the meager and soft-spoken Milton (in the film’s other iconic performance by Stephen Root, who has never been better and more funny in a film), who is an enormously inventive comic creation.  He has messy hair, a horribly inept wardrobe, and glasses that have lenses so thick that I am sure he could actually seem the pores of another persons’ face from a mile away.  He is also a slightly melancholic and sad figure because of the fact that he is a man of modest needs (all he wants in office life is his red stapler, his desk at the window so he can watch the “married squirrels” outside, and his radio on at “reasonable levels.”  Unfortunately for him, Lumbergh treats him like a piece of sticky gum that he has found at the bottom of his shoe.  The more he mistreats Milton, the more introverted Milton becomes in his quiet hostility.  At one point when Lumbergh moves Milton's office cubicle in the basement and asks him to look after a cockroach problem, Milton pitifully says to himself, “Okay…that’s the last straw…I going to…burn this place down.”  

No one takes him seriously, but they should. 

Anyhow, back to the trio.  They hate their jobs badly, but they can find no way out.  Fate steps in one night when Peter, at the insistence of his girlfriend, sees a hypnotist, but right before he can take Peter out of a spell (which instructs him to through caution to the wind and, in essence, stop caring about everything), he collapses and dies.  Peter, still in a trance, feels like a new man.  Even better…he quickly begins to show no interest in his job.  One morning he decides – nah – I’m not going to work.  He sleeps in, much to the chagrin of Lumbergh, who leaves him dozens of messages to inquire as to why he’s not at work (in one of the film’s slyest scenes).   

When Peter does get to work, he becomes an uber-slacker.  He does not get work done, plays video games on his computer, and – in one memorable montage – he tears down the walls of his cubicle to give himself more space and guts a fish on his office desk that he caught during his day off.  He even builds up enough confidence to ask out a pretty young restaurant worker named Joanna (in an early – and underwritten – role for Jennifer Aniston).  Joanna’s work life is also chocking her by the minute.  Her boss (played brilliantly in a brief cameo by Judge himself) never lets her off the hook for the lack of “flair” she has on during her shift (flair being decorative buttons).  Another one of those typical, ass-kissing waiters that also works there has 45 pieces, so Joanna’s wearing of the company minimum of 15 is not acceptable.  During one heated moment Peter amusingly tells Joanna, “You know, the Nazis had pieces of flair that they made the Jews wear.” 

Something interesting then happens at the Initech offices: Lumbergh introduces a series of “efficiency experts” (or…business men that come into to fire people) to the crew (played John C. McGinley, Paul Wilson) who the workers know are going to weed out the unworthy.  Samir and Michael Bolton are worried, but not the still hypnotized Peter.  Astoundingly enough, Peter’s low-key nonchalance manages to win himself over with the consultants (“You a straight shooter with upper management written all over him,” one of them ironically states), so they promote him.  Unfortunately, he soon realizes that his buddies will be on the chopping block. 

Peter breaks the news to his buddies, but he decides that the only way to fight back is if they all conspire together to rip the company off of millions of dollars (very slowly) via a computer virus program of Michael’s that will ever-so-slightly round off payments to the next-lowest penny and deposit the proceeds in their checking account.  Now, being Gen-Xers, it’s funny how they reveal how they come up with this plan (by watching SUPERMAN III, of course), but it’s even funnier seeing them worry about the repercussions.  They are so inept that they have to look up “laundering” in the dictionary and then worry about what kind of prison they would go to if caught.  Peter thinks that, at worst, they’d go to a “resort” for white collar schlubs, but Michael fears that he’s going straight to a “federal pound me in the ass prison.” 

Again, OFFICE SPACE is so thoroughly funny because of its subtlety, restraint, and it’s observant eye.  Ultimately, it works so well because audience members can so easily place themselves within the same basic work situations as its self-loathing characters.  What’s so great is how the film strike a real cord with office workers, especially for the way it garners much sympathy for the “plight” of those trapped by cubicles and an endless string of managers that regurgitate the same inane information over to them minute by minute (it’s funny, but efficiency experts always go after the workers in the “trenches” first and the redundant and endless string of bosses that all do the same job a distant second).   

The performances are all key, and Ron Livingston has just the right level of ordinariness and everyman appeal to make his depressed worker feel more real (a well known actor would have ruined the effect).  He also displays good comic timing with knowing how not to oversell the comedy and let the situations he finds his character sell the humor.  His supporting cast is equally refined (I especially liked David Herman’s Bolton, who’s hilariously prideful and embarrassed by his name), and the other slightly broad characters effectively counterbalance the main trio, like Cole’s unforgettable Lumbergh, Root’s bumbling and murmuring Milton, and even small characters like Peter’s neighbour (played in a funny cameo by Dietrich Bader) offer solid laughs.  Bader’s red neck is well realized: he has a mullet, always wears a bottle cap opening on his belt, loves to watch shows with naked women, and has one mission in life (if he had a million dollars): to make it with two chicks at the same time. 

Again, no matter how broad or understated the characters are, Judge understands them and fleshes them out with all of their quirky intricacies.  This allows for the comedy to brew more naturally, and the film has too many stand-out moments to mention: the opening sequence of the work commute, Peter’s hypnotic laziness on the job, Milton’s increasing ambivalence about his boss, and – in one classic bit – Peter, Samir, and Michael get their ultimate revenge when they take one dastardly and problematic office copying machine into a secluded field and give it a gang beating.  I defy anyone during that last moment not to (a) laugh hysterically and (b) cathartically feel that they know exactly what these guys are feeling. 

When OFFICE SPACE was released in February of 1999 it tanked at the box office, only making $4.2 million on its opening weekend.  It then disappeared, never to be heard from again…that is until it hit home video where, but 2003, it had sold nearly three million copies.  That same year it was one of the top 20 best selling DVD’s from its studio, 20th Century Fox.  Later, when Comedy Central premiered the film on TV, more than a million people tuned in.  By 2003, that same channel would broadcast it another 33 times.  Recently, and most notably, Entertainment Weekly rated it number five on its list of the 25 greatest comedies of the last 25 years.  Without a doubt, OFFICE SPACE would easily place it on my personal list of the ten best comedies of the last ten years...no question. 

If there were one sad footnote to the silent OFFICE SPACE phenomenon that has occurred during the last ten years then it would certainly be Judge himself, who has never managed to catch its lightning in a bottle again.  He would go on to only make one more film, the unmitigated flop that was IDIOCRACY, a well-intentioned and ambitious, but lackluster, comedy about how society de-evolves into utter stupidity in the future (regrettably, the film was barely given a theatrical release).  Nonetheless, his OFFICE SPACE still shows Judge as a fully realized comic auteur that has a real feistiness, confidence, and scathing wit with his subject matter.  His film is kind of ingenious for how it takes a scornful – but sympathetic – look at a slice of Americana, one dominated by those at the lower extremes of the office chain of command that are ruled over by emotionless drones that make their lives intolerably hellish.  During my repeated viewings of OFFICE SPACE I have always been reminded on something Lenny Bruce once said: 

“All humor is based upon destruction and despair.”  

That sums up Judge’s winning satire rather well.  What?  You disagree?  Didn't you get the memo?

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