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Office Space (1999)

by on 2011/04/23

“I don’t know why I can’t just go to work and be happy like I’m supposed to, like everybody else.”

* * *

Have you ever had a supervisor who was more interested in bossing you around than in actually getting things done? Who would panic if you went offline for a quarter of an hour? Who would call your home and let it ring indefinitely? Who would suggest you need to work on the weekend?

If so, I feel your pain, as does writer/director Mike Judge.

His feature Office Space predates The Office TV series and, for a time, served as an exemplary satire of corporate white-collar insanity. In truth it’s little more than promising, never fully realizing its potential, but briefly successful for being the metaphorical one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.

The scenario is by now a cliche, explored in efforts as diverse as Everything’s Gone Green, Fridays, Harold and Kumar, Jpod, The Matrix, and Wanted. Ron Livingston (Going the Distance, Swingers) plays Peter Gibbons, a low-level dysfunctionary at a company called Initech. Presiding over his drudgery is a passive aggressive middle manager, Bill Lumbergh (The Brady Bunch Movie’s Gary Cole).

When Gibbons discovers his work friends — Michael (David Herman) and Samir (Ajay Naidu) — are soon to be let go, they collaborate on a plan to turn unemployment into retirement. Along the way they’re joined by a varied cast of characters including waitress Joanna (Jennifer Aniston), neighbour Lawrence (Napoleon Dynamite’s Diedrich Bader), and pathetic long-suffering Milton (Stephen Root).

Although the story’s qualifications for comedy are reasonably clear, I was struck by how often it simply relied on observing believable stuff: situations and behaviours, actions and reactions, what frustrates and offers us hope.

I thought of my parents as I watched, how they couldn’t easily relate to the reality displayed. Assuming they could, they’d surely think it a joke, invented or exaggerated. Yet so many parts of the tale and its world felt true to my experience: the petty minutiae, politics, and defense mechanisms of those who play the game.

In being accurate, it’s fair to say the opening was frustrating. However, establishing conflict is the first act’s reason to be. We expect things to change, and they do, after setting the scene. The second act is even better, less true to life, but vicarious, thrilling, and blissful…

…until exactly halfway in, at the 45 minute mark. At that point, it all devolves into an exercise in the average, awkward, disappointing, and tiring. The picture’s best-known scene — of coders destroying a printer set to blaring gangsta rap — marks a rare high point in a slow, by-the-numbers resolution. I suspected that the plot overall had missed a turn somewhere.

Of course, nobody has found a solution yet to the modern First World workplace, which explains both why Office Space continues to resonate, and why it disappoints. Gru and I often use the phrase “arranging deck chairs on the Titanic”. The metaphor functions well in many business situations. It might just as easily be applied to this production. It preoccupies while it lasts but, eventually, it sinks.

* * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States) for language and nudity

89 minutes

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