The cult workplace comedy, and regardless of Idiocracy devotees’ advocacy, the only Mike Judge movie worth its salt. Judge acutely captures the pointlessness and soullessness of the typical office environment, and by association the hamster-on-a-wheel design template of western civilisation, fabricated to distract and delude us until we eventually drop. It’s the micro-observations that really lend Office Space its lasting aura, untarnished by period-specific details such as the millennium bug and computer files that take an eternity to save, and which help to forgive its less illustrious aspects, such as the sop that is an ending tailormade for materialists lacking the legs to look onwards and upwards towards anything else.
Peter: It’s not just about me and my dream of doing nothing. It’s about all of us. I don’t know what happened to me at that hypnotherapist and, I don’t know, maybe it was just shock and it’s wearing off now, but when I saw that fat man keel over and die – Michael, we don’t have a lot of time on this earth! We weren’t meant to spend it this way. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about about mission statements.
Michael: I told those fudge-packers I liked Michael Bolton’s music.
Peter: That’s not right, Michael.
In which respect, the issue is one of conception, albeit one likely accurately reflecting the average individual’s conception (meaning that Judge fails to acknowledge, doubtless because he suffers the same malaise, that there’s more to it). Peter (Ron Livingston) recalls school career counselling where they were asked what they’d do if they had a million dollars and that would be their profession. Peter’s answer is “Nothing. I would do nothing”. And even though he will go on to explain what he did during a weekend when he was supposed to come into work (“I did nothing. I did absolutely nothing, and it was everything that I thought it would be”), we know such an approach is untenable for the rest of us.
But more than that, as much as indolence may hold passing appeal, it isn’t, really, a solution that’s going to make most people happy. The thorny issue is extracting the essential need for fulfilling labour (or purpose, or vocation, if you like) from the currently imposed societal structure/stricture that dictates it in exactly the kind of empty, corporate, inimical way depicted here. When Peter frets “What if we’re still doing this when we’re 50?”, Samir (Ajay Naidu) responds “It would be nice to have that kind of job security”. Which is exactly how we’re indoctrinated to think (sooner or later, the practicalities of survival dictate motivating oneself in that manner, unless we come up with a pet rock: “You think the pet rock was a really great idea?” Notably, the idea the fired and failed suicide Tom (Richard Riehle) has of a “Jump to Conclusions” mat is now available to buy, off the back of the movie).
Peter: Every single day that you see me, that’s the worst day of my life.
It’s entirely congruent, then, that the solution to Peter’s malaise is similar to the method by which the masses are instructed to carry on in the ant farm: hypnosis. Michael McShane’s Dr Swanson, Occupational Hypnotherapist, dies while Peter is under, having told him “Your concern about your job melts away”, yet failing to click his fingers to bring Peter out of his trance state. Consequently, Peter’s indifference to showing up at work, to his bosses, and to the efficiency experts brought in to downsize the company, are every working stiff’s dream response (Livingston has never really stood out, his “moment” probably being Band of Brothers, but he’s the embodiment of the average guy here, which is a compliment). He even comes to work in his flipflops (okay that isn’t so enviable).
Peter: Good luck with the layoffs. I hope your firings go really well.
Peter was formerly prey to the needling attentions of boss Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole, oozing bureaucratic smarm), along with the triplicate-and-more requests that he read the memo requiring “Cover sheets on all the TPS reports”. Now, he just doesn’t care. He informs rapt consultants Bob (John C McGinley) and Bob (Paul Willson) that, in a given week, he probably does about 15 minutes of real actual work; they’re awestruck by his honesty (and courtesy) and line him up for a promotion, much to Bill’s horror (the icing on this cake comes when they begin interrogating Bill on the time he spends in a week on the TPS reports). This “doing the opposite of what’s required and becoming a hit” idea is a serviceable one and usually pays dividends (it’s also the basis of The Producers, in its most absurd form, along with the Grot business in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin), and one sort of wishes Judge had made more of it, rather than moving into some actual “plot”.
As efficiency consultants, though, the Bobs’ job is to facilitate workplace casualties, such that we see Tom toppled. They also deal with poor oppressed Milton (Stephen Root, around for decades before this, but in a part that ensured his legacy and newfound demand), whom we discover has only been paid at Initech by mistake for the past five years and was actually fired (he didn’t realise either, nor does he realise, even when the pay cheques dry up); in expectedly cowardly fashion, the consultants seek to “avoid confrontation wherever possible”. Milton has been subjected to constant desk moves and thefts of his precious stapler(s); he’s thus already close to breaking, murmuring to himself about setting the building on fire. The character was Judge’s chief inspiration, having previously featured him in three animated shorts, so it’s unsurprising that he should win out at the end (and yet, as if to underline Judge’s point, “success” hasn’t changed him, improved him, or otherwise made him a more easy-going individual).
Peter’s plan – well, Michael’s plan… well, Richard Pryor’s plan in Superman III – to appropriate the “unwanted” fractions of pennies from Initech’s bank account as a means of compensation, meets with the charge – from tentative girlfriend Joanna (deceased Hollywood hermaphrodite Jennifer Aniston) – that it’s stealing, which is wrong; he replies “It’s not wrong. Initech is wrong. Initech is an evil corporation, all right?” But Judge’s very traditionally minded point is that two wrongs don’t make a right, as the escalating panic when Michael realises he must have put a decimal point in the wrong place makes it look like they’ll get jailtime (Samir’s “You are a very bad person, Peter” seems tantamount to a Seinfeld reference, but with an Iranian rather than Pakistani character furnishing the intonation).
Judge allows his characters a happy solution (Milton’s threats come good, both for him – he gets hold of the traveller’s cheques Peter had the funds in – and the criminal trio; somehow, the office burning down puts an end to any accounting anomalies). Kind of. Michael and Samir simply end up at another identikit software company (Intertrode). But then, the point is that they’d rather passive-aggressively suffer than take any risks that might entail thinking or acting out of step with the dictated paradigm; David Herman, who has mostly been a voice artist since, makes for a computer nerd par excellence as Michael Bolton, from his devotion to aggressive rap while caught in traffic jams (locking his doors and turning the stereo down when a African-American beggar walks by) to his vituperative rages (“‘PC load letter’. What the fuck does that mean?”) and incensed response to that “No-talent ass clown” who has the same name as him (“Why should I change? He’s the one who sucks”). Judge observes him with painful precision, such that, when the consultants, big Bolton fans, ask Michael his favourite of the artist’s tracks, he replies, bottling it, “I guess I like them all” (the actual Bolton: “They had to make that fucking movie! I was doing fine. Then they made this movie, and I can’t go anywhere!”)
Peter: I don’t know why I can’t just go to work and be happy, just like everybody else.
Joanna: Peter, most people don’t like their jobs.
Peter meanwhile goes to work in the “fresh” air, in construction with Neanderthal (but likeable) neighbour Lawrence (Diedrich Bader). Which offers him solace, for now (“Isn’t so bad”). The sop here is that there is no answer; Peter is no different to everyone else, Joanna chides, so he and we will ultimately just have to lump it and get on with it, aberration of wistful thinking over.
There IS a pertinent point there, of course; a good number of people burnt by the cubicle-hell office environment would rather undertake “menial” jobs so as to escape the stresses incumbent with the former (which is not to say there aren’t stresses to be discovered in any level of employment activity). More germanely, though, that we can’t all be Mike Judge, living the dream of creative recognition and fulfilment (and also, perhaps, nightly visits to cloning centres). We have to get real. And, such is life – for those of us who aren’t Judges – we should probably be suspicious of any suggestion there is such an answer. As Tom, wheelchair bound and bolted together, says to Peter, “Just remember, if you hang in there long enough, good things can happen in this world. I mean, look at me”. Judge, for his part, wished he could have completely rewritten the third act (he also hated the poster, which I quite like; Fox weren’t on a particular high with ad campaigns at that point, witness also Fight Club’s failure and afterlife. Tom Rothman’s defence: “…sly is hard to sell”).
Office Space is short and to the point, such that, rather like a Coen Brothers movie, one is likely to recognise each scene as vital, quotable and intrinsic to the whole (if anything, the Joanna job and flair – TGI Fridays dropped its staff badge requirement as a result – subplot is slightly superfluous, the message being that work is insufferable in any walk, hers being the service industry: as her insidiously cheerful colleague evidences, the key is less the profession than whether it suits one’s personality and skillset. Whether Peter will last at his new one is questionable). The movie may have belly-upped at the box office, but its legacy – and subsequent success on rental, DVD, TV etc – speaks for itself.