Well, it’s been a while since I last posted, but please forgive the little hiccup. I’m hoping normal service will be resumed now, presuming what went before could actually qualify as either (a) normal or (b) a service. Perhaps I should say “irregular belches about films are currently working their way up autumn’s esophagus” in the name of accuracy. In case you’re interested (and I’m not for one minute assuming you are, but I’m going to type the following anyway) I moved house, went on holiday and came back to a stressful couple of weeks in the office, where the packed punches of deadlines, lay offs, hotdesking and outsourcing are all being keenly felt.
Ah…the office. That place we go and sit for a third of our lives, and do that thing that we do each day involving files and emails and IT problems and colleagues and meetings and targets and figures. I work in publishing, for an American-owned company; I’m not a great fan of the job or my paymasters, but I put up with all the business lingo, sloganeering and managerial nonsense so that I can pay the mortgage, buy food and splash out on frivolous overpriced rubbish from Apple every now and again.
As a result, I am one of the probably millions of workers that identifies very much with Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), the disgruntled worker at the centre of Mike Judge’s brilliantly-observed late 90’s satire Office Space. Gibbons is a programmer at Initech, a mid-sized software company with an office that will be recognised by most white collar workers: it is an enthusiasm-sapping space filled with faceless, de-humanizing cubicles, irritating and repetitive telephone voices, pointless micro-management and regular whispers of down-sizing.
Gibbons hates his job, and his relationship with girlfriend Anne (Alexandra Wentworth) is going down the pan. When he agrees to attend hypnotherapy sessions he is sent into a serene, relaxed trance by a Dr. Swanson (Mike McShane, familiar to many British TV viewers as a result of his regular appearances on improvisational comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway? in the late 1980s and early 1990s), but the doctor has a heart attack before he can bring Peter back from his reverie. Subsequently, work becomes a lot easier as Peter simply doesn’t give a hoot. Free of all his previous anxieties, he ignore the requests of his overbearing, irritating boss Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) and quietly rebels against the stultifying corporate culture that previously irritated him. He even finds time to ask out local waitress Joanna (Jennifer Aniston), who also happens to be going through a hate-my-job mini-crisis of her own.
When Peter discovers that two of his co-worker friends, Michael Bolton (David Herman) and Samir Nagheenanajar (Ajay Naidu), are to lose their jobs, the trio decide to rip the company off by uploading a virus to the company’s network. The idea (copied from Superman III of all places) is for tiny fractions of cents to be shaved off from the company’s account and dropped into a bank account, but it all goes horribly wrong.
In all honesty, the plot of Office Space isn’t remotely important. The film’s strength comes from the hilarious, acerbic script, which is rich with detail, knowing humour and biting satire, and also the superb comic turns by minor and major characters. Livingston is well-cast as the deadpan, unambitious thirty-something office drone, Cole is hilarious as the ever-quotable boss who prefixes every sentence with the word “Mmmmmyeeeaaaaahhhhhh” and Anniston easily matches the level of her comic performances in Friends as the Chotchkie’s waitress being forced to wear “pieces of flair”. Chotchkie’s is, of course, a parody of TGI Friday’s.
There is also excellent support from Diedrich Bader as Gibbons’ next-door neighbour Lawrence, John McGinley (who has been in a lot of good films but is probably best known as Dr Cox from Scrubs) as the hard-nosed consultant Bob Slydell and Stephen Root as Milton Waddams, an obsessively petty, mumbling Initech employee who repeatedly threatens to burn the building to the ground under his breath. (Somewhere an alternative universe exists where the short-lived TV show Danger Theatre, in which Bader starred in a kind of Naked Gun-meets-Macgyver-meets-The-A-Team sketch called The Searcher, is rightly heralded as one of the most underrated comic shows to have ever appeared on the small screen. Don’t believe me? Check it out…)
The film actually came from several short animated films Judge made about the character of Milton, which were originally aired on Liquid TV and eventually found more fame on Saturday Night Live. Judge’s inspiration for the shorts came from a couple of temporary jobs he had in the 1980s. The writer/director said “It seems like every city now has these identical office parks with identical adjoining chain restaurants. There were a lot of people who wanted me to set this movie in Wall Street, or like the movie Brazil, but I wanted it very unglamorous, the kind of bleak work situation like I was in.”
20th Century Fox wanted to make a film about the Milton character, but Judge wasn’t interested, and instead wrote and made a film more generally about office life with an ensemble cast. Unfortunately studio suits weren’t too happy with the results and disapproved of much of Judge’s footage. They also disliked the use of hip hop as the film’s soundtrack, until their opinion was changed by the reports from a focus group. In actual fact, the studio got this one right; the music just doesn’t sit right with the subject matter, although there are one or two decent jokes shoe-horned in about white guys listening to gangsta rap. In turn Judge didn’t like the marketing for the film, particularly with regard to the movie’s poster advert, but he worked with the studio again on 2006’s hugely underrated satire on rampant, unchecked consumerism, Idiocracy (though Fox actually pulled that one from release, with reports suggesting they were a little too concerned by its portrayal of futuristic versions of fellow multinational corporations).
Judge’s script is sharp as hell, and Office Space stands up to repeated viewings in part due to the quality of the writing, the excellent comic delivery of the cast and the level of rich detail with which the writer mocks the corporate world. Rival companies have variation-on-a-theme names like Initrode; an early, slowly-built gag about “TPS Reports” will draw knowing chuckles from anyone that has ever had to deal with a meddling manager that refuses to listen; and there’s things you’ll only see if you look closely: in a meeting room, for example, a flip-chart has a convoluted flowchart scrawled all over it with the phrase “Plan for planning!” written at the top, which I had never noticed until the most recent viewing. If only real life offices were less ridiculous. But they ain’t.
Despite all it has going for it, Office Space only just clawed back its $10million budget upon release. It received some decent reviews, but the film was also handed some that unfairly damned it with faint praise, and it seems that audiences just weren’t prepared to take a risk on a comedy that required a degree of thought and intelligence (contrast its lack of success to that experienced by the comical but less discerning American Pie, released in the same year). Judge’s film found a wider, more appreciative audience on DVD, though, and has since become a cult classic, cherished by a great many fans.
I’m certainly one of them. Office Space probably isn’t to everyone’s taste; by its very nature it will probably be enjoyed a lot more by people who have – at some point in their lives – actually worked in an office and found the experience immensely frustrating. A man swearing at a printer paper jam, for example, probably isn’t all that funny if you’ve never done the same thing yourself in a fit of pique. But in my opinion it’s a magnificently smart comedy. Judge treats the subject of his jokes – corporate offices with all its pettiness – with utter contempt, without ever seeming like an arrogant.writer or dismissive of those who have to work in them. He is all too aware of the plight of millions of Peter Gibbonses worldwide, and though he subversively mocks the environment, he has plenty of sympathy for those trapped in the drudgery of the 9-to-5 existence. Livingston is unshowy as the calm, sympathetic anti-hero, and he is ably supported by the comic talents of Anniston, Cole et al. It’s a gem of a film, made by a man who – in his own humorous way – has repeatedly mined the zeitgeist for laughs. If you roll your eyes at the prospect of “Hawaiian shirt Fridays” and you haven’t seen this yet, may I politely suggest that you put that right as soon as possible.
Directed by: Mike Judge
Written by: Mike Judge
Starring: Ron Livingston, Jennifer Aniston, Gary Cole, David Herman, Ajay Naidu
Running Time: 89 Minutes