I used to work as a clerk in a doctor’s office. One day I came into work and found out that we were bought part and parcel by a very large HMO. Suddenly there were a bunch of nonsensical forms to fill out in triplicate every time we wanted to requisition more staples and five new bosses to answer to, each secure in their little “I’m upper management and you’re a faceless, expendable lackey” job, each intent on passing on complaints and requests to the next executive up the line rather than deal with a problem.
“Office Space,” Mike Judge’s first foray into live-action filmmaking after bringing us the depravedly entertaining “Beavis and Butthead” and “King of the Hill,” is a movie about those obscenely huge corporations, the ludicrous bureaucracy they entail and the worker bees who are mad as hell and refusing to take it anymore. It nails its target mercilessly.
Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) is a programmer whose mind-numbing job is to update bank software for the y2k problem. He spends the bulk of his days staring at his desk pretending to work and bemoaning his existence – for him, each day is the worst day of his life because every day is that much more horrible than the one before it. He takes phone calls from Milton, a weird guy in a neighboring cubicle, in a misguided effort to alleviate the pain.
Peter’s two best friends at work, Samir (Ajay Naidu) and Michael (David Herman), must labor under an unpronounceable surname and the curse of a bad pop singer, respectively. When an efficiency consultant is brought in by the priggish, hem-and-haw veep who oversees their work and constantly asks (although not in any way that would allow the answer “no” to be acceptable) them to work on the weekends, Peter snaps. He skips work, ignores his messages and hits the consultant with the brutal truth about his waste of a job which, of course, gets him a promotion – that’s how screwed up this corporation is. Along with Samir and Michael, he hatches a plot to embezzle money from the company and live the lush life down in the Caribbean with the profits.
And then there’s Milton. “Office Space” is actually based on Judge’s “Milton” shorts, wickedly funny little bits about a Dilbert-like drone constantly crapped on by his boss. The live-action Milton (Stephen Root) is a mumbling mess who veritably screams “Help me!” with his splotchy skin, his inability to speak above a near-whisper, his boundless love for his red Swingline stapler. Milton is our sympathetic barometer of pain and insensitivity as cruelty on top or cruelty is dumped on him by the evil vice president. It’s hard to believe that one man could be so bizarre or compliant, but when Milton finally breaks, it’s a breathtaking sight to see.
The mostly no-name cast does a very good job with Judge’s material and because of their unfamiliarity seem far more effective than established stars. Case in point: Jennifer Aniston is essentially the lone recognizable face in the cast, and while her own situation as the restaurant world counterpart to the Dilbert disciples (she works at a Fridays-like establishment where her manager actually chastises her for not sporting enough “pieces of flair”) is suitably amusing, she stands out as the weak link in the cast.
“Office Space” is an anthem for anybody who has ever spent time (or to be more accurate, done time) in a cubicle, a call to arms for the corporate cogs who know the hell that is a boss passing the buck. It’s incredibly timely, dealing with a problem that far too many capable workers know well. And it’s incredibly funny – even the extra-work situations are hilariously frustrating, from the evil morning traffic crush opening scene to Peter’s friendship with his next-door neighbor in the (what else?) generic apartment complex he lives in.
Watching “Office Space” is enough to make me question whether or not working at McDonald’s after college would be such a bad thing; at least I wouldn’t be locked in a tri-walled box from 9 to 5, staring at a computer screen all day long. Like all of us, Peter is constantly questioning his life choices, wondering if there’s something better out there.
There is. It’s called get them – before they get you.