By Rick Groen
Friday, February 19, 1999
Written and directed by Mike Judge
Starring Ron Livingston
and Jennifer Aniston
'Work sucks" is the promotional come-on for Office Space, and, these days, that cheeky little assertion seems like a delicious heresy. From Chaplin in Modern Times to Jack Lemmon in The Apartment, from the wry barbs of Nichols and May to the pop admonition to "Take this job and shove it," there used to be a healthy comic tradition of satirizing the more grinding absurdities in the industrial and business workplace. Now, those absurdities tend to be enshrined in the very language -- phrases like "efficiency experts" and "organizational charts" and "meeting culture" -- that we previously lampooned. Even the computer, once a suspect tool worthy of comedic jibes, has grown into an unquestioned love object, the trusty deity of the information age. For all these reasons, then, Office Space appears as a welcome antidote to our corporate culture's party line.
At least, it begins that way. Peter (played with passive-aggressive flair by Ron Livingston) is cast from the classic mould of the alienated antihero. In the opening frames, we see him inching through the gridlock of the morning rush-hour to arrive at the grey cubicle of his dead-end job. He's a bored computer programmer, updating reams of software for the Y2K shift, and the dull routine is chipping away at his soul. "What if we're still doing this when we're 50?" he complains to his fellow drones, whose view of the prospect is a tad more benign: "It would be nice to have that kind of job security." Around him, the usual surplus of middle managers fire off redundant memos with self-important zeal. Typically underemployed, they gather in boardrooms for needless meetings, where, diligently inked on a drawing board, an instructional chart bears the title, "Planning To Plan."
This is incisively funny. Writer-director Mike Judge, best known for the politically incorrect yahooism of Beavis and Butt-head, is surprisingly restrained at the outset. He has a cultivated eye for the engrained idiocies of corporate structures, and creates in Peter a perceptive wanderer through the byzantine maze, a guy capable of pulling back to see the inherent oddities not only of his salaried trap, but also of his complicity in springing that trap. "You've led a trite and meaningless life, and you're a bad person," he accuses himself, and then glances enviously at his satisfied colleagues: "I don't know why I can't just go to work and be happy, like most people."
That's a level of self-reproaching honesty not normally found in a Hollywood comedy, giving the laughs an unnerving edge. But Judge can't maintain it. Perhaps his TV background makes him unaccustomed to the demands of a feature-length script (the ending seems almost panicky in its abruptness); or maybe he just succumbs to the lure of the easy yuk. Either way, when Peter actively rebels and is ironically rewarded for his efforts by the head honchos, the picture loses its bite -- what began as discomfiting satire soon devolves into silly farce. By the time Friends star Jennifer Aniston pops up as a waitress-cum-love-interest (quite a stretch for her), it's a sure sign we're back within the smug confines of the Tinseltown formula flick.
And that's a shame. Had he followed through, Judge might well have struck a raw nerve and a responsive chord. Instead, all that's left is to applaud the intention. If nothing else, Office Space dares to challenge today's pared-down wisdom that any employment is a virtue in itself, that pointless work is its own pointed reward.