In the world of mindless, unrewarding office work, there are only two kinds of people-the ignorant and the miserable, and anyone with half a cortex and an ounce of self-worth soon finds themselves dragged, frustrated and broken, into the realm of the latter. Even more depressing than the misery itself, though, is the way in which employees are expected to casually accept their plight as a normal, unavoidable-even desirable-part of daily life. In the world of office drones (and, by association, the larger corporate America they reflect) it’s fine to hate your job, and even bitch about it openly, as long as you continue to show up and do it. Despite popular opinion, the most threatening thing a person can do is not post cynical Dilbert cartoons around one’s cubicle but, instead, it is to imply that there might be another, better way of life beyond the double glass doors. Mike Judge’s Office Space is the story of a group of guys who, for a while anyway, do just that.
Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) is a low-end software tech working on the Y2K bug (remember that?) at a faceless company called INITECH. He hates his job, not so much for what he actually does (or, more accurately, pretends to do) as for all the daily inanities he’s forced to endure. There’s the chirping drone of a secretary in the next cubicle, the possessed fax machine, the constant fear of unemployment, and a Kafkaesque, memo-obsessed cadre of middle managers, headed by the passive-aggressive Antichrist of a VP, Lumbergh (Gary Cole). Like most people at INITECH, Peter is unhappy. And, like most people, he doesn’t do a damn thing about it.
All that changes, though, when a botched hypnotherapy session leaves him in a state of subconscious bliss. In the days that follow he ditches work, dumps his problem girlfriend, and devotes his time to sleeping, fishing, and watching “Kung-Fu” with his new love interest, Joanna (Jennifer Aniston), a waitress at one of the local “wacky” theme restaurants, Thotchke’s. It’s not that he’s quitting his job, he explains to her. He’s “just gonna stop going.” Logic would dictate that such an attitude would quickly get him canned. But logic has no place in the office.
In a meeting with the new downsizing consultants, Peter does the unthinkable-he tells them how he really feels about his job-and is awarded with a promotion. He also finds out that his two fellow programmers, Michael (David Herman) and Samir (Ajay Naidu), are about to be fired. Faced with the dread of finding yet another crappy screen-staring gig, they reluctantly conspire with him to create a virus that will rip off the company (à la Superman III) and make them independently wealthy. Of course the fail-proof plan immediately goes awry. And, unfortunately, Office Space quickly goes down the tubes as well.
In all but the most well-crafted cases, comedies set up amazing scenarios full of decent characters and then don’t seem to know where to go from there. Too often, an otherwise great idea gets lost in the panic to resolve it all, and the result is usually a much too tidy, obvious, sitcom-style ending. It’s no surprise that, coming from the creator of “Beavis and Butthead” and “King of the Hill,” Office Space is weak in the story department but packed full of right-on characterizations and hilarious background details. Anyone who’s done time in an office will smile knowingly at the little things-the sickly cheerful jokes about Mondays, the blatant insincerity of the team players, the “rewards” of Hawaiian Shirt Day, the politics of staplers and birthday cake.
Some of the images-a cubicle wall falling, the bludgeoning of a fax machine, keyboards engulfed in flames-are downright subversive. The gangsta rap soundtrack is a nice touch, given the nerd-as-wannabe-criminal theme (and Michael’s tendency to spout rap lyrics even as he locks his car door at the sign of a black man). Judge does a good job of sending up (in a genuinely disdainful way) places that are too often taken for granted. He targets not just offices but the world around them as well; clogged freeways, thin-walled apartment complexes, and parking lots lined with identical prefab buildings. One of my favorite shots is simply of four guys trudging awkwardly across a grassy ditch on their way back from lunch-a testament to the basic inhumanity of the modern car-centric office park. Judge must be congratulated, too, for giving a rare nod to another, equally insane line of work-the blues-busting chain restaurant.
Unfortunately, having split suburbia wide open, the movie seems clueless as to what to make of it all, and crumbles. About his film’s weak third act, Judge says, “I don’t want to dog on my own movie, but the ending probably could have been better...there might have been something better I could have done with [it]. At the test screenings, [the film] was a little too close to home for some people. A lot of people are working in those jobs and that kind of an environment and they’ve accepted it, which is great, but I think some people were insulted by it.”
Not only does the film’s ending hand its audience the tired “all you need is love” Hollywood treatment, but-more dangerously-it ends up perpetuating the very “work sucks but we need the bucks” mentality that it originally set out to challenge. I know it’s a comedy and, as such, I shouldn’t expect Rossellini or Marx. But if there’s a real disappointment here, it’s in Office Space’s ability to set up a fresh, merciless attack on a much-deserving (and sadly under-skewered) subject, only to retreat, like its characters, into the same old shitty routines.