Office Space (1999) Retro Review

Without desiring to hype it up too much, Office Space is probably the funniest movie ever made.

A few caveats are in order before I commit to this premise, just so we’re clear. In deference to the international community, Office Space is probably the funniest American movie ever made. In deference to your own taste, it is the funniest movie I have personally seen. I know National Lampoon’s Animal House, Young Frankenstein and Billy Madison are all strong contenders for the title, and Love and Death certainly leads in its share of winking Russian Lit references, but for my money no film produced in the United States has even approached the incisive honesty and awful truth of Office Space. I consider the film one of if not the funniest film I’ve ever seen for the simple reason that almost every scripted line is funny. It is also the only film that I know of that gets funnier the older I get. And I am not alone in this regard.

I have met plenty of people who love Office Space without having spent an hour of their lives working in an office. Myself and my classmates were these people growing up. But having grown up, and having worked in several offices, and having several friends now having worked in offices, the film takes on an almost transcendent quality, something so trenchant and unique that it genuinely surprises me. I’ll explain why in just a moment.

Normally my summary of the plot would go here but the plot for Office Space is pretty weak. Ostensibly it’s about one man, Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingstone), who despises his job at a tech company. He dreams of doing nothing at all, which is more or less what he does already, only sitting in a cubicle and trying not to get caught doing it. After a therapeutic hypnosis goes wrong (or very right), Peter suddenly turns a new leaf. He disengages from his work, lets everything slide, and is eventually promoted. But in retaliation for firing his two pals, he strikes back at the company with a computer virus that will take fractions of IniTech’s profits and donate them to his bank account. That plan goes tits up almost immediately.

The film is episodic and the plot is really just an excuse to move its players from scene to scene. In the meantime, it delights with vividly memorable characters and truly excellent line deliveries.

Office Space in the 21st Century

When I was younger and simply watching Office Space to watch a comedy, the jokes were jokes and the exaggerated ennui of its lead Peter Gibbons was just a quirk of characterization. The movie was fun, clearly made for just a little bit of money and with an all-around quality cast, but that was it. Then I graduated to the white collar and tie club and most if not all of the jokes and characterizations in Office Space I once considered exaggerations were soon revealed to be authentic.

In my experience, employees and bosses alike will joke when an Office Space situation arises, usually referencing the odious Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) as a way to divert from the banality of their own evil, but in most cases it is the employees making the jokes and the bosses playing along – because, as some of you may already be aware, upper management survives mainly in the refuge of not knowing. Indeed, it is precisely Office Space’s representation of a corporate environment free of self-consciousness that makes it simultaneously hilarious and terrifying. It’s hilarious because the behavior of its employees and employers flies flagrantly in the face of common sense; the film is absurdist in the classic sense of the word. But the terrifying bit, as anyone who has worked in an office will tell you, is that offices themselves are absurdist environments. And usually the more rules an office has, the more chaotic that absurdity becomes.

Granted, this analysis comes to you from a person who considers himself predominantly right-brained, but I have talked to plenty of left-brained types who see the excesses, recesses and soullessness of office politics as the epitome of futile. There is not an American out there, white collar or blue, who has not felt the crushing failure of the proverbial square peg trying to smash its way through a round hole. And how many times did I watch Office Space before I realized that IniTech’s company logo was actually a square peg in a round hole? These are the things you see only once you’re looking for them, and it’s a perfect example of how Office Space is a far, far more intelligent comedy than it lets on.

On its surface, the movie is just about how people hate their jobs. You can even reduce it to how it’s about one man, Peter, who just wants to do nothing instead of working for a living. To describe it like that, however, would be to gloss over what’s really going on – and for better or worse I think the majority of America has done that, reducing the film to a squirrelly Stephen Root mumbling that he’ll set the building on fire and coveting his red stapler. When we go deeper (take in the movie as a whole, as a satire and not as a screwball comedy) we see that Office Space is a commentary not just on the inanity of office life but the effect it has on the human spirit. Peter Gibbons does not dream of doing nothing because he’s lazy, it’s because he operates in an environment that is spiritually stultifying and has been operating in it for so long (school simply being preparation for cubicle work) that he lacks the ability to articulate what is wrong. Peter has essentially been raised on the religion of white collar work without once believing in its communion. He himself says it best when he openly admits to his review board, “It’s not that I’m lazy. I just don’t care.”

On the surface this line is simply a funny take that at working in an office. But it underlines a very human reaction to so much of what an office represents: A set of strict behavioral and technical regulations that are acceptable for the purpose of farming “work” through itself and turning human beings into nothing more than rubber stamps along the way. Is an office necessary for the production of necessities we use in our daily lives? It certainly seems that way. Is an office environment, no matter how free, consummate with the spiritual satisfaction of a life well lived? Well, no, but why should it? That refrain, of “why should it” be satisfying, why should life have purpose, need not be answered when confronted by the necessities of paying for rent, paying for gas, paying for groceries, being married, etc. In the film, when Peter flips that question and instead of asking himself why he’s not satisfied, asks why he should go to work, for the purposes of this satire it shuts down his managers’ ability to deal with him. When confronted by Peter’s mighty “I don’t care [what you think],” the sentiment – though juvenile – is viewed as being so outside the box that he must be an innovator, a leader, “with upper management written all over him.”

And for those of you who think this is far-fetched, do yourself a favor and ask your working friends how many of their bosses idolize Steve Jobs. If you don’t think one headstrong asshole was enough to give managers across this country license to barrel ahead like they too could shit out pearly solid-state miracles if people just did what they said, you don’t know corporate life in the twenty-first century, my friends.

Revenge of the Nerds, circa 1999

Peter and his co-workers’ revenge against their company’s malevolence is to, of course, steal money from them. Will I go out on a limb and say that Mike Judge was penning a scathing indictment of capitalism by showing that, rather than laudable freedom fighters Peter, Samir and Michael are so indoctrinated in this corporate culture that they can think of no better vengeance than one in which they need never work again, freed from the constraints of worrying about money by having more money? Honestly, I wouldn’t put it past him. The man who directed this film and Idiocracy has twice proven himself to understand the complacency, ineptitude and tragedy that are the hallmarks of American culture. If we once, as Thoreau wrote, “lead lives of quiet desperation,” that desperation has become lost in the loud lunacy of whatever we lead now.

Office Space was released in 1999, the same year we received another film about breaking away from the humdrum world of office politics, The Matrix. The date is important if for no other reason than Judge managed to make a prescient point with even the smallest detail of his film. Again, I have no clue whether Judge is just way, way smarter than the rest of us, lucky, a modern day oracle, or the second coming of Thoreau, but Peter Gibbons’ job, mentioned in one throwaway line, is updating computer software “for the 2000 switch.” Those of you old enough to remember Y2K will remember what a great time we all had as hostages to a media that promised us nothing less than digital armageddon. Data throughout the corporate infrastructure was given two digits (e.g. encoded as 99 instead of 1999), which meant that when the year 2000 arrived, everything would roll back to 00. The consequences of this ran the gamut from total data meltdown to absolutely nothing. Thirteen years later, here we all are. Giving Peter this menial, mundane and ultimately useless job is emblematic of everything insidious about his office. It is a very small part of a movie that serves to illustrate how even its smallest parts coalesce into a staggeringly well-constructed whole. (That a gibbon is a species of lesser ape is just a bonus joke.)

The Dharma of Mike Judge

I have a lot of love for this film for many reasons, not the least of which is how subtly and acerbically it criticizes the way we work. Some things Office Space does loudly, but most of those things serve the big jokes. The smaller jokes, the better jokes, are all built into the spaces between the laugh lines and the reaction takes, the smash cuts and the sight gags. It truly benefits from repeat viewings, especially as one migrates from laughing at the corporate world to inhabiting it like a bee in a harping, humming hive.

Yet the takeaway here is not nihilism, nor anarchy. Jennifer Aniston’s waitress, who works a much more low-paying job than Peter and is – despite one obstreperous outburst – much more well-adjusted, tells him sympathetically, “Most people don’t like their jobs.” According to a 2011 Gallup poll, this is true. Seventy-one percent of us don’t care for our jobs.

But they are necessary, aren’t they? To afford the internet to browse this website, you need to pay for it. To sit in the home that includes your refrigerator that cools your groceries, you need to pay the bills for gas and electricity and water. There are garbage bills for the garbage man, taxes for the tax man, health insurance and renter’s insurance and gasoline inflation. And on top of that, someone needs to build the computer you’re using right now, or the phone. Someone needs to design it, someone needs to ship it. The world wouldn’t work if we didn’t have jobs. Office Space ends with Peter still working, just at a new job. Despite the laughter, so much frustration has been expended throughout the film that to see him smiling is a relief. But a deleted cut of that penultimate scene, of him happily working in the open air, has him being accosted by a foreman holding a coffee cup and telling his employees to hurry up with their shoveling. Mike Judge chose to cut it, probably to keep the ending upbeat (the man’s a satirist, not a sadist). But that cut ending is the truth; no matter where you work, eventually something about it’s going to get you down.

Office Space is the ur-example of the classic, “It’s funny because it’s true.” Visually the film is a time capsule of the 1990s, but its corporate parks, joyless office birthdays, casual Fridays, passive-aggressive management, casual bitching, unloved co-workers on the margins of insanity, and the mind-boggling lengths co-workers will go to not notice or be noticed are as true today as they were decades ago.

Peter tells Michael that human beings weren’t made to sit in cubicles staring at computer screens all day. While I happen to agree, I also happen to make my living that way. Without making that living, I wouldn’t be living. It’s a circle, but comfortable and required, and Office Space does not offer any solution for this corporate woe. Peter does confess that he’ll probably never be happy with his job but if he could be with the girl he loves he might be happy with his life. It’s a heartfelt sentiment and possibly true, though it does do little to alleviate the numbing effect of a 9 to 5.

There is no panacea as of yet; we can’t force an entire corporate culture to roll over and act sensibly just because we all know better. But thanks to Office Space we can laugh through the pain.

Based on the “Milton” shorts by Mike Judge

Office Space (1999)
Directed by Mike Judge
20th Century Fox
89 Minutes

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1 Comment on Office Space (1999) Retro Review

  1. Wow, I shouldn’t have read this at work. I think I’m going to quit now. In that article, I’m one of the 19% Actively Disengaged. But this movie was hysterically awesome & accurate!

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