“Office Space” (1999): The Violent Dreams of the Unmotivated Workplace (Review)

· Films & Video Games

One of these days, it’s just gonna be like… *cocks machine gun

I never liked The Office – mainly because I never found it to be as consistently funny as Office Space.  The target is generally the same, but Mike Judge did in an hour and a half what that show couldn’t do in over 200 episodes.

One of the ways he managed that was by understanding that the attack on the Columbine High School signaled a new era in America.  Since those two terrorists weren’t immediately blown to pieces by the police, and since their corpses weren’t strung up on a flag pole for the entire town to stone until there was nothing left to bury, future attacks just like it were guaranteed to happen again.  Guns in America are not new, but the 21st century homicidal psychopath was.  It could be seen there as clearly as it can be seen today.

No firearm is ever brandished or discharged in Office Space, yet the film is full of characters who at any point in time could foreseeably turn into a maniac.  It updates some of the concepts of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho.  No one does the woman’s vanity act, but the monotony of corporate office culture is so ubiquitous that it produces violent urges that require an outlet.  For Michael Bolton it’s rapping in the car.  For Samir it’s struggling to swear.  For Milton it’s arson (and poisoning guacamole).  And for Peter it’s bringing the catch of the day into his cubicle, fileting it, and dumping its innards all over his TPS reports.

Office Space joins The Matrix, Fight Club, and American Beauty to round out the central theme of the 1999 year at the movies.  All four feature sleepless depressed corporate office drones disrespected and considered expendable by their bosses.  All four respective protagonists are looking for satisfaction – something to appreciate or somewhere to belong.  Three out of the four get shot at the end, and I’ll stop comparing them now because you get the point.  But unlike the other films that obsess in various ways over who its main character really is, the film sticks to its strengths found in satirizing the workplace.

Not that Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) isn’t carefully observed throughout the movie.  In the interviews with the consultants, Peter is the first to tell them how it is.  Earlier in the film, the Bobs interview Tom and Michael, clearly trying to sniff as much bullshit as possible.  When Tom can’t answer the simplest questions about the relationships between engineers and customers, it’s over.  When Michael betrays himself and asks them to call him Mike, it’s over.  Contrary to them, Peter walks into the office in summer clothes and flip flops, leans back in his chair when he sits down, and talks about how little work he actually does.  He bitches about TPS reports and tells them to their face that he doesn’t care about his job or the company, and that his only motivation is to not get hassled by eight different bosses who tell him the same thing.  All of this is exactly as funny as it is meant to be, but the other reason Peter gets promoted is because the Bobs see that he actually understands how people are motivated or unmotivated.  And as we see throughout Office Space, when Peter is properly motivated, he can do whatever he wants and feel like a gangster.

In satirizing the workplace, the film offers only small glimpses of success outside of it.  You can invent the Pet Rock, cash in on an injury settlement (assuming there’s enough left of you to enjoy it), sell magazines, or find an envelope lying on the floor of your boss’s office.  Otherwise, work is unavoidable, and on some level that’s going to drive you crazy, climaxed in this film by the printer destruction.

Peter’s nightmares are the other climax – bringing the possibilities of real life into his escape spaces.  His dream of Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) giving him orders on TPS reports while nailing Joanna (Jennifer Aniston) serves as a perfect metaphor for the intrusion of work into his private life.  But his last nightmare also gives him clarity.  He doesn’t react when Samir calls him a very bad person or when Lawrence rebuffs him; only when a judge in his dreams says it after sentencing his friends to prison rape.

Almost twenty-five years after the release of Office Space, almost no comedy has rivaled it. No other film has maintained such a casual, quiet tone from beginning to end in such a way that makes its rapping more memorable than any other.  Mike Judge, previously known only for intentionally lowbrow animations, reveals his brilliance here, which he later perfected in Silicon Valley.  Yet the only trace of Beavis and Butt-Head in this film is the character of Milton (Stephen Root), including his desire to set the building on fire.  Otherwise, this film takes the corporate world as it was understood to look like in the late ‘90s, and makes it frightening with its incorporation of violent and incendiary rap lyrics.  There’s something honest about rappers who lived the life they rapped about, but when square white people (and Samir) adopt that culture too, especially when they exist in such a bland, repetitive construct that is the American cubicle, the result is just as destructive.  No feud between Bad Boy and Death Row would likely ever enter a suburban high school classroom.  But affluent, white collar monotony certainly could.

Good thing we solved all this before it really became a problem.  I’d hate to imagine how people would react if a mass shooting occurred today.

– Vivek

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