It’s safe to say that only a fortunate minority are truly happy in their place of employment. Despite thousands of years of evolution and countless technological leaps forward many of us still feel trapped working in dead-end jobs which require about as much brain power as a goldfish needs to swim in a circle.
No place of work is more ripe for satire than the office, something Ricky Gervais milked for all its worth in his quite brilliant TV series The Office.
However, a full two years before Gervais’ landmark show hit the small screen in 2001, director Mike Judge gave us one of the greatest comedies to have come out of America in years in Office Space.
Before Office Space, Judge was best known as the creator and star of the hit animated series Beavis and Butt-head. Animation was Judge’s forte (he went on to create the classic long-running series King of the Hill) and the live action Office Space originated as a series of short animated films centred around the chronically frustrated office drone Milton, an inspired comic creation who would become one of the central figures of the movie.
Peter (Ron Livingstone) is a programmer for software firm Initech. Like many others at the company, he is deeply frustrated with his lot in life (“sounds like somebody’s got a case of the Mondays”, his colleague points out, unhelpfully), but cannot see beyond the next humpday. In an effort to save his relationship with the uptight Anne, he agrees to see an ‘occupational hypnotherapist’. Under hypnotherapy, Peter is told to completely relax and forget about all his concerns, but before he can be brought out of it the hypnotherapist drops down dead from a heart attack.
Still under, Peter suddenly realises it’s time to start living his life and, after being dumped by Anne asks out frustrated waitress Joanna (Jennifer Aniston). He turns up to work late, ignores the petty bureaucracy of his smug, pedantic boss Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) and in an interview with consultants Bob (John C McGinley) and Bob (Paul Willson) (who have been brought in to look for ‘efficiencies’, ie staff cuts) speaks his mind about his work ethic (“it’s not that I’m lazy it’s just that I don’t care”) and the over-abundance of management at the company.
But instead of being fired, Peter is deemed to have “upper management written all over him” according to the Bob’s and is given a promotion, much to Lumbergh’s consternation. When Peter discovers the Bob’s have been brought in to get rid of people, his friends Samir (Ajay Naidu) and Michael (David Herman) included, he decides to take revenge by working with Samir and Michael to steal from the company by infecting the accounting system with a computer virus.
When a glitch in the plan leads to them stealing way more than they first intended Peter gets a crisis of conscience and decides to take the fall for the crime. He slips a confession letter and unsigned traveller’s cheques under Lumbergh’s door and waits for the police to arrive. But when this doesn’t happen he drives to Initech to find the company on fire – and with it all evidence of the crime.
The first thing to say about Office Space is that, crucially for a comedy, it is very, very funny. Clearly a labour of love for Judge, the film is populated with fantastically realised characters and memorable scenes that anyone who has worked in an office will identify with.
The opening traffic jam sequence is brilliant, with Peter exasperated that it’s always the other lane that seems to move quicker; Samir impotent with rage in his car; and Michael pretending to be a gangsta while listening to hip hop in his car and then turning it down, winding his window up and locking his doors when a homeless black guy approaches offering to wash his windscreen.
Judge’s clear hatred for the sterility of office working is distilled in moments of hilariously observed satire, from the depressing uniformity of the work cubicles, to the perplexing what-do-they-do-exactly tiers of management who wander up to Peter asking if he has seen the memo pertaining to the ubiquitous TPS reports.
Judge tries a bit too hard sometimes to go for the easy laugh, most notably by naming Herman’s character Michael Bolton, which is frankly nothing more than a shameless excuse to stick the boot in to the “no-talent ass-clown”. However, for every moment that fails to hit the right note, there are 10 others that have you laughing out loud.
Livingstone has just the right hang-dog expression of someone who feels that every day is the worst of his life, while Cole is fantastic as the repellant Lumbergh, sporting a ridiculous pair of spectacles and a mug of coffee forever glued to his hand. Aniston is also surprisingly good in an admittedly thin role (before she plumped for being typecast in retrograde romantic comedies).
However, it’s Stephen Root who walks away with the film as Milton, one of American cinema’s most inspired comic creations. With a nervous, barely contained hatred for the world around him, Milton is a heart attack waiting to happen and the more ridiculous looking cousin to Michael Douglas’ D-Fens in Falling Down (1993). The ritual humiliation he endures when his desk is constantly being moved around the office and then to the storage area is bad enough, but when his beloved stapler is removed by Lumbergh you feel it’s only a matter of time before he makes good on his barely coherent threat to burn the building down.
While Judge’s subsequent films, 2006’s Idiocracy and 2009’s more commercially successful Extract were very hit and miss, Office Space is a high watermark in American comedy and a work of genius from someone firing on all cylinders.