The New Cult Canon: Office Space
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"So I was sitting in my cubicle today and I realized that ever since I started working, every 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."
"What about today? Is today the worst day of your life?"
"That's messed up." —Office Space
What does the worst day of Peter Gibbons' life look like? In Mike Judge's Office Space, it looks conspicuously like your worst day, too: Idling for an hour in rush-hour traffic, outpaced by an old man with a walker; eight hours in a cubicle under the sickly glow of florescent lights; the boss (or eight bosses) hassling him over some meaningless bureaucratic addition to his already meaningless job; lunch breaks at some chain eatery, where an overeager waiter hard-sells "pizza shooters, shrimp poppers, and extreme fajitas"; and the million other petty annoyances, from bum printers and motivational banners ("What can you do for the company?") to static shocks and mini-battles over office supplies. And at the end of the day, he returns to a one-bedroom apartment stocked with cheap Ikea furnishings and those horrible blinds where the slats clack together like wind chimes when you close them.
There have been many portraits of cubicle culture before and after Office Space—The Office, Clockwatchers, Dilbert, and the early scenes of Joe Versus The Volcano immediately spring to mind—but none have laid out the parameters of this soul-sucking modern world quite so comprehensibly. With that in mind, it's easy to see why the film was such a dud at the box office. For data processors and middle-managers across the country, the prospect of seeing your personal hell projected on a big screen is the furthest thing from escapist fun. But as legions have discovered on DVD, the experience is thrillingly cathartic; finally, someone who understands how a desk job can, in fact, be worse than logging time doing the drywall at a new McDonald's. There, at least, nobody's saying, "Looks like somebody's got a case of the Mondays!"
For my money, the signature shot in Office Space finds four employees at Initech—a technologies firm with the vaguest of mission statements—trudging across the lot at an industrial park. As they chatter anxiously about the company bringing in efficiency experts to clean house, they walk down and stumble back up a drainage trench dug out between the parking areas. Judge catches the moment from a medium-to-long distance, and the effect is like an anthropologist observing his subjects from afar, trying to get a feel for how they interact with their habitat. The shot underlines how unnatural their occupations are: Here are four of today's hunter-gatherers, each in a dress shirt and a bad tie (no jacket required), trudging through this banal piece of sculpted landscape in order to get back to a job that yields nothing of tangible value. There's no dignity to it.
Were Office Space merely a comedy about white-collar drudgery, however, it might have never found such an appreciative audience. In actuality, it's as much a fantasy as Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, but more relatable, because Peter puts the daydreams of many into action. Few people can imagine themselves embarking on a globetrotting adventure, but there are legions of workaday types who dream of unshackling themselves from their desks, sleeping until 3:30 in the afternoon, and doing absolutely nothing with their oceans of free time. Call it a permanent staycation. There are practical reasons this will never happen—bills to pay and whatnot—but the revelation that it could be possible to not be productive Well, that's what moviegoing is all about.
Judge comes from the world of animation, and that informs his decision to cast actors who look like live-action cartoons, and have them populating a suburban pit that's all too real. As Peter, Ron Livingston winningly plays the one average guy in a world of kooks, much like Luke Wilson later would in Judge's flawed but inspired satire Idiocracy (a New Cult Canon contender in its own right). Livingston has two friends in the software department, the comically belligerent Samir (Ajay Naidu) and Michael Bolton (David Herman), who refuses to accept a nickname just because some "no-talent ass-clown" sold millions of records and made their shared name infamous. The other colorful employees include potato-faced Tom Smykowski (Richard Riehle)—who admires the guy who made a million bucks on the pet rock, and is formulating his own Big Idea in the "Jump To Conclusions" mat—and poor, put-upon Milton (Stephen Root), with his coke-bottle glasses, irritated skin, and mumbled threats that he'll burn the place down if he has to suffer one more indignity.
At Initech, many of those indignities come courtesy of Bill Lumbergh, who lords over the place with ridiculous suspenders, a coffee mug, and an almost magical ability to materialize when he's least wanted. As played by Gary Cole, one of my favorite character actors, Lumbergh embodies a common type in the white-collar middle-management world: the excruciatingly passive-aggressive boss. Instead of firm, respectful directives, Lumbergh gives a deep inhale of big-fish/small-pond superiority and spouts orders like, "Yeaaaaahhh if you could go ahead and make sure you do that from now on, that would be great," or "Yeaaaaahhh I'm going to have to ask you to move your desk down to Storage B." Cole makes a meal out of lines like those, but his performance also has some subtle modulation, like the way the faux-enthusiasm drains from his voice when he realizes that "Hawaiian Shirt Day" may not boost the spirits of employees facing unemployment. Here's Lumbergh at his best, muscling Milton out of his precious stapler:
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Judge includes what might fairly be viewed as an obligatory romance between Peter and Joanna, a waitress played by Jennifer Aniston, who does sort of a downscale variation on her character in Friends. Their relationship doesn't have any comedic payoff—she's the straight woman as much as Livingston is the straight man—but here again, Judge uses her occupation to evoke the crushing, cookie-cutter banality of suburbia and the modern workplace. The restaurant where she works, Chotchkie's, is a thinly veiled swipe at restaurants like T.G.I. Fridays or Chili's, where the atmosphere and the waitstaff jam fun down people's throats like so many delicately battered awesome blossoms. Just like Lumbergh, the waiters at Chotchkie's have to wear suspenders—maybe there's some symbolic significance to that, or maybe Judge just finds them funny—and they're required to don at least 15 "pieces of flair," quirky little pins with homespun expressions or blinking lights on them. In this world, Joanna has a lot in common with Peter: They're both underachievers. She thinks it's enough simply to do her job and go home without bowling people over with her enthusiasm like her co-worker, a "case of the Mondays" kind of guy. In this scene, Judge gives himself a plum cameo as another passive-aggressive boss who wants her to want to show more "flair":
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Though funny and affable all the way through, Office Space loses some of its snap in the second half, once the downsizing starts and Peter, Samir, and Michael hatch a scheme to embezzle money from the company one fraction of a cent at a time. (It should be said, however, that the Superman III connection is ingenious, as is Peter's attempt to compare the plan to the "take-a-penny, leave-a-penny" trays at the convenience store.) For example, a scene where Orlando Jones turns up as a fake mentally challenged door-to-door magazine salesman takes away more than it adds, in spite of the nugget that he makes more at that shady enterprise than he ever did working in tech support. Judge seems so at home documenting the narrow hierarchies, annoyances, and power plays at Initech and Chotchkie's that it's almost a shame he ever has to leave. (If King Of The Hill weren't occupying him, he'd have been well qualified to bring The Office to the U.S., though Greg Daniels and company are doing a fine job on their own.) He ran into the same problem—but worse—with Idiocracy: He's exceptionally skilled at slice-of-life comedy, not so much at the plotting needed to bring a movie to its close.
But you know what else he's really good at? The montage. With their wonderfully ironic use of gangsta rap and mambo, the montage sequences in Office Space slather slo-mo badassery worthy of Scarface into gags like the opening traffic jam, Peter's dismantling of the workplace, or the whitest of white-collar criminality, like planting a virus or laying waste to a printer. Judge's deceptively unadorned shooting style, which is more like deadpan with a camera, shouldn't obscure the fact that he's using the movies to enlarge the life of a painfully ordinary guy and and make it important. His universe is modest, but on that scale, his triumphs are epic. Damn, it feels good to be a gangster.
Next week: Rounders
Nov. 6: Near Dark
Nov. 13: Audition
Nov. 20: Pulse
Nov. 26: The Devil's Rejects