Office Space (review)

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Ennui of the Nerds

If you had a million dollars, what would you do with yourself? This question, posed initially by a high-school guidance counselor as an exercise in helping a guy figure out just what he wants to do with his life, is pressing on the mind of Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston, appealing in a Charlie-Sheen-without-the-sleaze-factor kind of way). A cube dweller at Initech, a software company, Peter is slowly but surely being bored to death. Every day is worse than the one before, he tells his “occupational hypnotherapist,” so every day is the worst day of his life.

Like writer/director Mike Judge’s previous endeavors — TV’s King of the Hill and Beavis and Butt-HeadOffice Space, his first live-action film is, at first glance, lightweight and slight, if highly amusing. But lurking beneath the sitcom surface is pointedly drawn satire that uses the tiniest of minutia of an ordinary, well-known environment — like KOTH‘s middle-class suburb or, here, the corporate workplace — to throw into sharp focus the things that we all love, hate, and love to hate about everyday American life in the 90s.
If you’ve worked in the corporate world in the last 15 or 20 years, everything about Initech will be instantly recognizable: the annoying radios and telephone manners of neighbor cubizens, the frustration of dealing with recalcitrant copiers and fax machines, the too-chipper gals who chirp things like “Sounds like somebody’s got a case of the Mondays!”, unenthusiastic office birthday parties, timesheets and job codes, and management consultants running amok. This — along with dealing with rush-hour traffic and the paper-thin walls of his cookie-cutter condo — are driving Peter to the edge of his sanity. Fortunately, Peter has figured out what he’d do if he had a million dollars: “I’d do nothing.” So when a session with his hypnotherapist goes awry, Peter is left with a liberating who-gives-a-shit attitude about work. He’s not even gonna bother to quit — he’s just not gonna show up anymore. “It’s not that I’m lazy,” Peter says, “it’s that I just don’t care.”

A quick trip to the office to pick up his stuff, though, sees Peter roped into talking the management consultants evaluating everyone’s jobs, and his frankness impresses them. (When asked to describe his day, Peter starts out by saying that he’s usually at least 15 minutes late and then just sort of stares into space for an hour — oh, it looks like he’s working, but he isn’t.) They’re convinced Peter is management material, and Peter plays along… to a point. Sure, he shows up at work — in shorts and flip-flops — but only to play Tetris and hang out with pals Samir (Ajay Naidu: Pi) and Michael (David Herman). Peter’s just being up front about all the tactics we all use to put off doing any actual work, and it’s worth the rental alone to see Gary Cole (A Simple Plan) as Peter’s boss — the kind of oily, chatty VP who pretends to be your best friend while screwing you over — be struck dumb by Peter’s behavior.

In a world where a near fatal accident is considered a lucky break — a huge settlement breaks you free of the chains of a paycheck — and it’s better to tell people you’re an ex-crackhead rather than an unemployed programmer, it barely even seems criminal when Peter, Michael, and Samir hatch a plan to embezzle a potload of money from Initech. And it makes perfect sense that the gangsta-rap soundtrack can express the rage of geeky white boys. Watch for the scene in which Michael — the bespectacled, short-sleeved-dress-shirt-wearing programmer — takes out his culturally induced aggression on a hapless fax machine. It’s a thing of beauty.

Office Space barely earned back its modest $10 million budget earlier this year, and I find it hard to figure out why it didn’t do much better. If empty fluff like any Adam Sandler movie you’d care to name can play forever, raking in the dough, I don’t see what prevents immensely clever fluff like Office Space from taking off. The thoughtful stuff is subtle here — you can check your brain at the door and still get a good laugh from Office Space, or you can hold on to your brain and get an even better laugh — so the Adam Sandler crowd shouldn’t be scared away. So what happened with Office Space?

Patrick Stewart, of all people, is a big Beavis and Butt-head fan, and he summed up their appeal succinctly when he said that very smart people and very dumb people enjoy B&B, if for very different reasons. The same could apply to Office Space. Maybe this’ll become one of those cult video hits. It deserves a better fate than what the box office dealt.

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