Office Space (1999)

Dir. Mike Judge. Starring Ron Livingston, David Herman, Ajay Naidu

Since watching Office Space for the first time, I’ve struggled to come up with a way to describe just how bad it is. The story of a bunch of nobodies being nobodies at their nothing jobs, intended as a color-by-numbers for beta males, is so terrifically dumb that it makes me sympathize with the terrifically dumb philosophy of Ayn Rand. In retrospect, Office Space would have been worth the effort if Howard Roark had shown up, exploited the nerds of Initech as a way to show that some people are just superior and should work entirely for their own benefit, and then blown up the building. In other words: Office Space is so bad it makes Objectivism look appealing.

In the days before the Internet, I suppose Office Space probably had a little bite to it. Not a lot of bite, mind you, just enough bite to make you feel validated in how much you hated your crappy 9-to-5 job at some middling company. But in 2004, Facebook launched, and Reddit followed suit in 2005. Within a couple of years, aside from becoming dangerously essential in ways that even the mordant survivors of 9/11 couldn’t fully predict, those two gave us new ways to gaze deeply into our own shared tics. Back when Facebook groups were a thing, I remember joining one that united people who always flipped the pillow over onto the cold side to sleep. Amidst the many subreddits for inanity (Hello there!), there are r/dae and r/showerthoughts, just to name a couple, which thrive on the sort of non-observations that fill our heads while we walk the dog or take out the trash or drive to work. It’s fortunate for Mike Judge that Office Space predates social media, because the movie would have been totally redundant after the invention of subreddits. Office Space has a single joke, but the joke isn’t actually funny and it’s told ad nauseum over an hour. Blink-182 makes the point on Enema of the State much more succinctly and memorably: “Work sucks: I know!”

It hasn’t helped that some of the jokes haven’t carried over to the 21st Century. In a moment when our sympathy for Michael Bolton (Herman) should probably be at its height, when he is on the verge of being fired by the soulless tech company, the movie blows it by using anti-gay slurs. Samir (Naidu) has no defining characteristics aside from a last name that no one can say, which is funny in the same way that Apu from The Simpsons, which is to say that it isn’t. (Ironically, there’s a funny moment when Michael is rapping with his radio on his way to work. He sees a black man walking toward him and rolls up his window until the guy leaves, at which point he starts rapping again. This is basically the story of white America in the 1990s, but the movie never comes close to that sort of insight again.)

Nor does it help that Office Space is a drowsy movie. Stephen Root plays the movie’s most culty figure, Milton Waddams, who is a mumbling mess of a human being. It can’t have actually happened more than three times, but in practice the scene that he repeats over and over again with company vice-president Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) may still be happening. Lumbergh needs Waddams to move his desk or do some menial task. Waddams meeps at him while Lumbergh ignores him. It takes about the same amount of time every time. There’s a red stapler involved in this that’s probably a Horcrux or something. It’s the primary example of Judge finding a moment which is humorless but horoscope-level relatable, which is . (It’s also the key to the movie’s ending, which is as close as it gets to Roark-esque incendiaries.) The movie begins with a few, at that. On his way to work, Peter (Livingston) discovers that no matter what lane he’s in, the lane he was just in moves faster (DAE…?). He gets the business about not having read a memo from multiple bosses in sequence. Michael fights the copy machine. Someone says “case of the Mondays.”

Fittingly, it’s Judge himself, playing the manager at a chain restaurant, who sells the most asinine of all workplace injustices. “Flair,” or, more accurately, a mass of buttons attached to suspenders, are the key signifiers of how much a person cares at this restaurant, and Joanna (Jennifer Aniston) refuses to wear more than the required minimum. Aniston’s presence in this movie is already a mystery; Joanna is a love interest for Peter, who God himself would have a hard time loving, but I suppose someone with name recognition had to be in Office Space for it to get made. Her Chotchkie’s experience is an off-topic window into the very different world of the service industry, which would otherwise have been ignored by the underpaid but relatively cushy jobs of the white-collar tech world. People could go anywhere for burgers, Stan tells Joanna, but they come to Chotchkie’s for the “attitude.” He’d like her to wear more flair; he points out Brian, who’s got thirty-seven pieces. If you want me to be like your “pretty boy,” Joanna replies (probably less offensive than “fudgepackers,” but same difference), then why don’t you just make the minimum thirty-seven? It’s a moment where I want to side with Joanna. Stan’s got the full passive-aggressive boss thing going on, making an official minimum expectation which is counteracted by his actual expectation. It’s profoundly dumb. And yet her reaction to Stan’s passive-aggression is even dumber. Office Space is a movie which recognizes the basic foolishness of its protagonists, surely, such as when they embark on a plan to steal a few hundred thousand bucks from Initech. But it also sees their inability to accept absurdity with anything resembling grace as a virtue. Children do what Peter and Joanna do when they decide their jobs are too much for them to handle: they throw tantrums. Joanna gives her boss the finger(s), and Peter stops even pretending to do his job. It’s a peak GenX example of screaming that the world is unfair as if the world didn’t know or were bound to change because of this knee-buckling discovery. It’s cathartic, I guess, but I’ve never done cartwheels because I swatted a fly.

There’s a zany third act for all of this which I was prepared to enjoy, but it’s so abrupt and out-of-place that it’s like watching a car chase stapled onto the end of a nature documentary. The embezzling scheme that the Initech dweebs come up with is, in Peter’s mind, basically foolproof. Michael has a program that will cheat the system, and Samir is the best programmer who will put it all in place. It goes wrong almost immediately, as we knew it would, but aside from the fact that the money is transferred too quickly into Peter’s account, there’s no real threat and thus no real opportunity for humor. Mostly we watch Michael and Samir flop sweat their way through until, all of a sudden, Milton Waddams burns down Initech and ends the struggle and, mercifully, the movie. At least this one doesn’t tacitly advocate for eugenics, amirite?

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