Tribute review for actor Gary Cole, born today September 20th.
OFFICE SPACE, 1999
Directed by Mike Judge
Starring: Ron Livingston, Jennifer Aniston
Review by Matt Lohr
Peter Gibbons, thanks to a hypnotic suggestion, decides not to go to work at the same time his company is laying people off. When layoffs affect his two best friends, they conspire to plant a virus that will embezzle money from the company into their account.
Mike Judge’s Office Space is a movie for me. And a movie for you. And really, a movie for anyone who’s ever worked what I call a “joe job”, a job so mentally undemanding and essentially meaningless that any joe can do it. Supervised by idiots who treat you like a bigger idiot, besieged by obnoxious co-workers, strait-jacketed by nonsensical company policy…we’ve all been there, and if Judge hasn’t, he certainly fooled me, because he has captured the deadening, infuriating hell of modern corporate culture with pitch-perfect satirical accuracy. Of course, why, after a day at our awful jobs, would we want to watch a movie about people with awful jobs? Because these people, unlike most of us, finally figure out how to fight back.
Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) is a cubicle slave at the monolithic Initech Corporation, one of those companies in which lots of anonymous people work too hard doing things they don’t quite understand. Peter hates his job, his desk, his soulless supervisor (Gary Cole), and pretty much the fact that the sun rises and sets every day. “Every day since I started working at Initech has been worse than the last,” says Peter, “which means that, every time you see me, it’s the worst day of my life.” Willing to try anything to bring him out of his funk, Peter goes to an “occupational hypnotherapist”, who puts him into a serene, I-don’t-care-about-work trance…then drops dead of a heart attack before bringing Peter out of it. That trance stays put but good, and Peter finally starts doing his job the way he’s always wanted to…that is, not doing it. He skips mandatory-overtime days to go fishing, guts the fish on his desk, dismantles the door handle that shocks him every morning, and even finds romance with a cute waitress (Jennifer Aniston) whose own frustrations with her job (and its policy about a mandatory number of funny buttons, or “flair”, on the uniforms) are reaching the breaking point.
The marvelous (and, when you think about it, rather horrifying) thing about Office Space is that even though it is clearly a satire, there is nothing in it that seems so far over the top as to be unbelievable. Everyone’s dealt with a fax machine that always says “Paper Jam” when there’s no such thing, co-workers whose relentless cheerfulness seems like a constant slap in the face, and the stultifying drag of having three different managers caution you about the same infinitesimal screw-up. Arbitrary workstation moves, paranoia-inducing “efficiency experts”, managers who do nothing and still get to drive Porsches home…it’s all here, and it all elicits a laugh of recognition and empathy for the characters’ miserable plight.
Mike Judge is one of those rare things today, a comic filmmaker with a genuine vision. His comedic muse is lower-middle-class America, its frustrations and glories, trials and triumphs, and his satirical approach to this universe can be both affectionate (King of the Hill) and pitilessly savage (the brilliant but barely released Idiocracy). Office Space falls somewhere in the middle of this divide. Surely, many of the jokes are cruel, particularly at the expense of poor Tom Smykowski (Richard Riehle), an office schlump who sweats every day over his tenuous hold on his job, then finally has his dreams of financial security come true when he’s crippled in a horrible car accident. However, Judge is not just poking fun here. He truly feels for Peter and his fellow office drones, and their revenge against corporate America works not just comedically, but emotionally as well; we get our own vicarious charge out of watching the fatcats get royally screwed. This was Judge’s first live-action effort, but there’s no hint of awkwardness or uncertainty in this transition from animation. The directorial hand here is a firm one, and the jokes hit home with all the punch they deserve.
Perfect casting is the main key to the success of Office Space. Livingston’s blandly handsome looks and deadpan manner make him a perfect choice to convey both Peter’s work-induced funk and his later devil-may-care rebellion, and he and Aniston spark nicely in their scenes together. Gary Cole scores big laughs as a soulless middle-manager with a coffee mug permanently welded to his hand. Also quite enjoyable are Ajay Naidu as Samir Nahinanajar, a software programmer who can’t understand why no one in America can pronounce his name, David Herman as a fellow techie cursed with the unfortunate name of Michael Bolton, and Stephen Root (who does the voice of Bill on King of the Hill) as poor put-upon Milton, whose ever-escalating battle to defend his workstation and his beloved red stapler soon leads to hilarious consequences for Initech.
The film’s soundtrack also scores a lot of laughs, mainly by being comprised of what would seem on the surface to be wildly inappropriate music. There’s a little Louis Armstrong and a few mambos by Perez Prado, but the majority of the soundtrack is gangsta rap tunes; a montage of Peter’s office antics is scored with the Geto Boys’ “Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta”, and Canibus and Biz Markie kick in a hilarious end-credits anthem, “Shove This Jay-Oh-Bee”. The hardcore urban black sounds hilariously clash with the images of white-collar white revolt, while at the same time perfectly bringing out the outlaw streak that runs deep within these corporate rebels.
Office Space was not a success upon its initial theatrical release, but has found a loyal fan base in ancillary markets. Almost everyone I know has seen it and loves it, and I have a hunch that as long as people still spend their days trapped in little boxes with desks, doing work they don’t understand for people they don’t like, Mike Judge’s film will be there, easing the pain and offering hope that some day, we can escape and do our own thing. And if you don’t respond to it quite so strongly, at least it should give you some good laughs after a hard day’s work.
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