Saturday, November 23, 2013


Every day is worse than the day before. So every time you see me, it's the worst day of my life. That's what Peter Gibbons says early in Office Space,    a movie that perfectly captures the absolute boredom and horror of the American workplace.  He says these words at a session with an "occupational hypnotist."  He's gone there because his dreary job has left him in a state that borders on clinical depression.  The hypnotist puts Peter into a calm state, but then falls over dead of a heart attack. Peter stays in this semi-hypnotized state for a while, which makes his job bearable. He even gets an unlikely promotion. When the hypnosis wears off, though, he's faced with a choice: stay in a job he despises, or do something about it.
There are details in this movie that are so correct that we'll never need another film about office life again.    Peter's situation is played for laughs, but there's something mildly tragic under the comedy, for Peter is just one of millions of Americans who are too smart for their jobs, yet not smart enough to do anything else.
I don't know how much time director/writer Mike Judge spent working in an office, but in between his classic animated shows (Beevis and Butt-Head; King of the Hill) he concocted this movie about industrial parks, theme restaurants, employee ennui, and the modern day frustration of corporate life. Office Space began as a simple cartoon snippet on Saturday Night Live, and as the late Roger Ebert pointed out in his initial review of the film, Judge treats the characters in Office Space "a little like cartoon creatures. That works. Nuances of behavior are not necessary, because in the cubicle world every personality trait is magnified, and the captives stagger forth like grotesques."
I know the place where Peter works. I know it so well that just thinking about it makes me want to punch somebody. The memory (and hate) is still so strong that I feel like I just swiped my access badge to enter the building. I remember the way the carpets smelled, and the night watchman who was waking up as the morning crew was coming to work, and how dull the work was, and how reams of computer printouts would be stacked on your desk, and how you were supposed to take a red highlighter and mark off "discrepancies," and how the only place we could go during our lunchbreak was to a dank restaurant up the road called The Ground Round, which I vaguely remember some comedian (Rosie O'Donnell?) describing as a Burger King with waitresses. It was either go to the Ground Round, or sit in the non-smoker's lounge, where fat old ladies gathered to eat cottage cheese.
Peter's spirit has been destroyed by working in such a place. I remember not even enjoying my weekends or holidays, because of the nagging sensation that I'd have to return to the office, and someone, as we see in Office Space, we'll say "It looks like someone has a case of the Mondays." Peter's neighbor (Diedrich Bader) works outdoors at a construction site. Peter asks if anyone has ever asked him if he has a case of the Mondays. "No man," Bader says. "I believe someone would get his ass kicked."
The movie is not only about the modern workplace. It's about trying to find yourself in an atmosphere that doesn't promote anything but robotic behaviour. How do you make the best of it? How do you maintain an ounce of your dignity when all around you are people without sense, happily carrying out their mundane tasks?  And how much of this frustration is brought on by our own egos and sense of self-importance? As one co-worker tells him, "I hate my job as much as you do, I just don't whine about it so much." Some of Peter's co-workers are dreamers. One wants to design board games. Another wants to create a software program that will rip off the company. Peter simply dreams of doing nothing. He asks the hypnotist, "Can you do something to  me so I think I've been fishing all day?" It's not that Peter is dumb or lazy; he's been exposed to so many stupid people in his daily life that he wishes only to hide in a cocoon. I'm also reminded of something Leo Tolstoy didn't quite say, that all jobs are horrible, but everyone hates their job in their own way.
Office Space was released in Feb. 1999, and despite positive reviews, barely made back it's 10-million dollar budget. By those numbers, it was a flop. It made a ton of money when it was released in Europe, where they must have loved seeing how us Americans drove ourselves mad by working so much. It also developed a cultish following through rentals and subsequent showings on cable television. At this point, it occupies a place in our memory somewhere between Uncle Buck and A Christmas Story.  It's one of those movies. Everyone I know has seen it. When a copy machine doesn't work, we instantly think of Peter and his friends taking their machine out and killing it with a baseball bat. People who came of age in the 1960s often claim The Graduate summed up life for them; for me, it's Office Space.
Peter is played by Ron Livingston, a good actor who shows the perfect mix of charisma and disdain. He might've have played a dashing TV detective in another era. When he talks two of his buddies into screwing the company, we believe they'd follow him. Also, not many actors could make staying in bed with the covers pulled up over his ears seem like a triumph, which he does in one scene as his answering machine loads up with messages from his boss. He rises, scratches himself, listens to a few messages, and then returns to bed. Rocky Balboa never had a victory so inspiring.(The sleepy Hawaiian music on the soundtrack helps.)
The movie is so good that even its villains seem likable, including Gary Cole as "Lumbergh," the drab boss ("Yeahhhhh...why don't we just say you'll be coming in this weekend...."). John C. McGinley and Paul Wilson are also great as "the two Bobs," a pair of charmless beancounters from corporate who have been sent to lay people off.  The scene where they meet Peter's buddy (David Herman), who happens to  have the same name as the singer Michael Bolton, is priceless. "You must really love his music!" gushes McGinley.  And then there's Drew (Gregg Pitts), the office dink. He's the one who makes "The Oh face." You know what I'm talking about. And don't forget the dreadful restaurant next door, which requires employees to wear "pieces of flair." Judge has directed other movies (Idiocracy, 2006; Extract, 2009), but he's never quite nailed the zeitgeist the way he did in Office Space. In his later movies, he seems to be more angry than funny, hitting his targets with a hammer. In Office Space, he's using a joy buzzer. There's not a single slack moment in the film, and not a single character you wish wasn't there.
Many of the film's best bits are classic, such as when Peter, who is still in a relaxed state after visiting the hypnotist, effortlessly asks out the lovely waitresses at Chotchkies, the local burger place (Jennifer Aniston). Or when Peter shows up at the office and uses a power drill to dismantle his cubicle. Or when Peter and his two pals, suddenly as slick as characters from Oceans 11, pull off their plot to screw the company. That the plan backfires is secondary, for it's enjoyable to see them go from being lowly office drones to steely-eyed conmen.
There's also Stephen Root as Milton, perhaps the film's most beloved character. There's a Milton in every office, the feeble older fellow who clings to his job even though he's clueless. Milton had actually been layed off years earlier, but because of clerical error he never got the memo. He continues coming in and continues to collect a paycheck. Lumbergh puts him in smaller and smaller cubicles, until there's barely enough room for Milton, his radio, and his favorite Swingline stapler. Yet, it's Milton, not Peter, who strikes the final blow against the company, freeing everyone from their shackles and allowing Peter to finally seek work elsewhere. Peter ends up working construction with his neighbor. Is he happier?  I'd like to think he is.
Office Space records a world that still exists, although some aspects of it belong to an earlier era. Peter and his co-workers stress over a job that involves preparing computer programs for the year 2000, when many feared the impending Y2K phenomenon. The hip hop music on the soundtrack, although still effective while watching the movie, seems to belong to the past, too. And fifteen years after the film was made, office life has become more Orwellian, with your every move recorded by a video camera or your computer. But otherwise, the drill is the same. Computers may be smaller and sleeker now, but most office jobs are still slow death sentences.  The people you work with are still assholes.